Polio, spreading abroad, threatens U.S.

By: ABC News Email
By: ABC News Email

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New York (ABC) -- A resurgence of polio in the Middle East and Africa has sparked a dire warning from public health officials, including U.S. experts who fear the deadly virus is just a plane ride away.

At least 10 countries are reporting cases of polio – a virus that can cause paralysis and even death.

“If unchecked, this situation could result in failure to eradicate globally one of the world’s most serious vaccine-preventable diseases,” the World Health Organization said in a statement today, calling the spread of polio in 2014 an “extraordinary event” and a “public health emergency of international concern.”

Childhood vaccines eliminated polio from the U.S. in 1979, and are still used today to prevent new infections. But more and more parents are delaying vaccines or skipping them altogether, leaving their children vulnerable to deadly diseases, according to Dr. William Schaffner, chair of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.

“If there’s a lesson for us here in the United States it’s that we have to keep vaccinating absolutely every child. If polio is reintroduced into this country, it will find those children whose parents are stretching out their immunization schedules, leaving them susceptible for longer periods of time,” Schaffner said. “That would be a tragedy."

And it’s entirely possible. Just this year the U.S. has seen a spike in measles cases, even though the virus was wiped out more than a decade ago. Mumps is also on the rise, and the first U.S. case of MERS emerged this month. But polio is particularly sinister, Schaffner said.

“It would be front page news,” he said of the possibility of an outbreak. “It would be a shock and an affront to our public health system.”

Polio spreads through contact with saliva and feces, according to the National Institutes of Health. The virus is currently being exported from Pakistan, Cameroon and Syria, and has turned up in Afghanistan, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Iraq, Israel, Somalia and Nigeria.

The message for Americans is to get vaccinated, Schaffner said.

“Adhere to the schedule,” he said. “It’s the very best way to protect your child from this potentially deadly disease.”

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