Polio passes easily from person to person and can
spread rapidly among children, especially in the kind of unsanitary
conditions endured by displaced people in war-torn regions, refugee
camps and areas where healthcare is limited.
"Wild polio virus continues to spread internationally from both
endemic and re-infected countries," the United Nations health agency
said in a statement, adding that the meeting in Geneva would last
Health experts from North America, Europe, Asia, Africa and the
Middle East will be asked "to advise on whether the current
developments on the spread of polio virus constitute a public health
emergency of international concern", it said.
Polio re-emerged in Syria in 2013 for the first time in 14 years,
fanning fears of a wider international proliferation and prompting a vast
regional emergency vaccination campaign.
The virus invades the nervous system and can cause irreversible
paralysis within hours. The WHO has repeatedly warned that as long
as any single child remains infected with polio, children everywhere
are at risk.
There is no cure for the disease but it can be prevented by
immunization. The polio vaccine, administered multiple times, can
protect a child for life.
Although transmission of indigenous polio has been declining
substantially in endemic areas since 2012, a total of 10 countries
are currently considered to have active polio transmission. Three of
these — Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria — are still endemic for
the disease and seven are countries that were once polio-free but
have been re-infected.
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Between January and April 2014, in what is usually the low season
for polio transmission, three new cases of the virus crossing
international borders have occurred — from Pakistan into
Afghanistan, from Syria into Iraq and from Cameroon to Equatorial
Guinea in central Africa.
"The Emergency Committee will provide advice ... as to whether this
increasing international spread of polio is a public health
emergency of international concern and, if so, whether temporary
recommendations are needed to reduce the risk and consequences of
international spread," the WHO said.
It gave no details on what those measures might be, but said it
would update its advice at the end of the Geneva meeting.
(Editing by Gareth Jones)
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