Papua New Guinea suffering from polio outbreak after 18 years

The first case of polio in Papua New Guinea in 18 years has been detected, with a six-year-old boy from the Morobe province the first confirmed case of the virus.

The boy presented to health authorities on the 28 April with weakness in his lower limbs and the virus – a vaccine-derived poliovirus type 1 – was confirmed on 21 May. Last week, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found the virus was also present in the stool samples of two children in the boy’s community; prompting health authorities to declare an official outbreak.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the impoverished island nation polio-free in 2000, along with the rest of the western Pacific region. Only three other countries in the world continue to battle the virus; Pakistan, Nigeria and Afghanistan.

So far the three cases are isolated to the Morobe province, where polio vaccine coverage is low, and only 61% of children have received the recommended three doses. WHO has assessed the risk of polio spreading to other countries as low, because travel in and out of the region is relatively limited. In the weeks after the first case was confirmed, WHO deployed health workers for a “mop up” immunisation campaign, targeting children under the age of 15. To date, 845 children from the Lufa mountain settlement have been vaccinated.

Water, sanitation and hygiene are serious challenges in the region, adding to the crisis of controlling the highly infectious virus which mainly affects young children.

Pascoe Kase, secretary of the National Department of Health (NDOH), said: “We are deeply concerned about this polio case in Papua New Guinea, and the fact that the virus is circulating.

“Our immediate priority is to respond and prevent more children from being infected.”

The Papua New Guinean government is now working closely with the WHO and other organisations to begin a large-scale immunisation campaign, as well as stepping up monitoring of vulnerable children.

The virus spreads through faecal-oral contamination, multiplies in the intestines, from where it spreads to the nervous system, causing paralysis.

Dr Luo Dapeng, WHO Representative in Papua New Guinea, said: “Since the detection of poliovirus in April, WHO has been working with the government on the investigation, laboratory confirmation, enhanced surveillance and response activities. We will continue to support the government to ensure children are protected.”

Worldwide, cases of polio have decreased by over 99% in 30 years, largely the result of a co-ordinated global health campaign to eradicate it.

There is no cure for polio once contracted; it can be prevented only by a series of vaccinations during childhood.

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