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'Guarded optimism' in polio fight

Insecurity in war-torn areas continue to plague efforts of public health officials.
Polio expert Dr. Arlene King

A public health doctor and expert in infectious diseases said she has “guarded optimism” in the fight to eliminate polio, the Rotary Club of White Rock heard Tuesday.

Dr. Arlene King, speaking at a Rotary Field House luncheon, said there are just three countries where polio is endemic – Afghanistan, Pakistan and now Nigeria, where the virus has recently resurfaced – compared to 125 countries in 1988.

“In July of 2014, we thought we saw the last of polio in Nigeria, but sadly two years later we saw it emerge again,” said King, interim executive medical director for population and public health at Fraser Health Authority and a member of the World Health Organization Global Certification Commission for Polio Eradication.

Polio, which Rotary clubs have long made efforts to end, is a highly infectious viral disease, which mainly affects young children.

The virus is transmitted person-to-person mainly through the fecal-oral route and can invade the nervous system and cause permanent paralysis in a small proportion of cases. There is no cure for polio, only prevention through immunization.

With Nigeria’s two new cases, there are now 21 cases identified worldwide so far this year. That’s a dramatic reduction from years ago, said King, noting a key recent achievement being the elimination of the virus from India.

According to the World Health Organization, polio cases have dropped by over 99 per cent since 1988, when an estimated 350,000 cases were present.

Last year health officials declared the global eradication of one of three polio viruses.

“It was a massive global achievement, but more work needs to be done to get rid of the rest of it,” said King.

Despite King’s optimism in the public health war on the virus, the challenge that health care workers continue to face is insecurity. King said many people have died trying to eradicate polio in unstable and war-torn areas.