Emergency Polio Response in Central Africa

11/11/2010 - The WHO has responded to a quickly-spreading outbreak of polio in three central African countries. The oubreak is affecting both children and young adults.

A quickly-moving polio outbreak in three central African countries has left 97 people dead in only a week. The first confirmed case of the disease was reported on November fourth in the Republic of Congo (also known as Congo-Brazzaville). A total of 226 people have been infected, as of the latest reports by the United Nations (UN).

Polio is a highly infectious viral disease that attacks the human body’s nervous system. Left untreated, polio can cause paralysis and death. However, less than 10% of cases will develop symptoms (these symptoms are generally minor). Of these, only 1% or fewer will be permanently paralyzed.

The origins of the current outbreak reportedly began in mid-October when a total of 73 cases of polio were recorded at a hospital near the Point Noire region in Congo-Brazzaville, also only in the span of one week.

According to the joint communiqué released by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN Children’s Fund, the rate of mortality for the current outbreak is alarmingly high. This has spurred international agencies to launch a large-scale emergency vaccination campaign targeting 3 million young people living in the city of Point Noire and in the Koilou region of Congo-Brazzaville, 16 districts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and pockets of Angola.

Unlike other mainstream vaccination campaigns, this emergency campaign will target both children and young adults. The reason for this is that most of the polio cases reported to date have been recorded among youth aged 15-29. This high rate of infection among young adults has health officials stumped and characterizes the current outbreak as being highly unusual. Polio is usually thought of as a “disease of childhood.”

Musing on the causes of the outbreak, the WHO noted that the immunity of teenagers and young adults may be lower than expected.

Over the last decade, the number of polio cases reported annually has ground to a virtual standstill at about 2,000. Along with children living in the 15 African countries currently being targeted for large-scale polio vaccination campaigns also led by the WHO, children living in Afghanistan, India and Pakistan also face a greater threat of polio than in most other countries.

Overall, though, vaccines have proved to be a critical tool in global initiatives to eradicate polio. Since the WHO launched a campaign to this effect in 1988, the world polio infection rate dropped 99%. To use economic jargon, vaccines have immense public health positive “spillover.” Not only do they protect the person being vaccinated, but because this person gains immunity to the disease in question, he/she cannot pass the disease on to anybody else. In other words, people who don’t get the vaccine still benefit and the disease is more likely to be contained.