For the first time ever, the World Health Organization today declared the spread of polio an international public health emergency that could grow in the next few months and unravel the nearly three-decade effort to eradicate the crippling disease. The agency described current polio outbreaks across at least 10 countries in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East as an "extraordinary event" that required a coordinated international response. It identified Pakistan, Syria, and Cameroon as having allowed the virus to spread beyond their borders, and recommended that those three governments require citizens to obtain a certificate proving they have been vaccinated for polio before traveling abroad.
Experts are particularly concerned that polio is re-emerging in countries previously free of the disease, such as Syria, Somalia, and Iraq, where civil war or unrest now complicates efforts to contain the virus. It is happening during the traditionally low season for the spread of polio, leaving experts worried that cases could spike as the weather becomes warmer and wetter in the coming months across the northern hemisphere. The vast majority of new cases are in Pakistan, a country which an independent monitoring board set up by the WHO has called "a powder keg that could ignite widespread polio transmission." At the end of last month, there were 68 confirmed polio cases worldwide, compared with just 24 at the same time last year. (Read more World Health Organization stories.)