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Polio spreads from Pakistan to China

In the last two months, seven cases of polio have been reported in China’s western Xinjiang province, the first in China since 1999.

The province lies on the border with Pakistan and the strain of the polio found in the Chinese cases is linked to the type of polio circulating in Pakistan. A vaccination programme is being conducted by the authorities in the Xinjiang region and a spokesperson for the World Health Organisation (WHO) said they were confident everything is being done to contain the disease in China. However, huge concern remains about the spread of polio within and from Pakistan, particularly when groups begin travelling to Mecca in Saudi Arabia for their Muslim Hajj pilgrimage.

Only last month, the UN children’s fund (UNICEF) spoke out about the rising threat of polio in Pakistan. In 2011, 63 cases have been reported for the year so far, compared to 36 cases for the same period in 2010. The South Asia Regional Director for UNICEF told the BBC that there was a “huge task ahead” in eradicating polio from Pakistan, which could become the “last polio reservoir” globally.

Polio remains endemic in just four countries across the world – Nigeria, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan. But Pakistan is the only country to see an increase in cases. In 2009, 89 children were paralyzed with polio and this number rose to 144 in 2010. Polio is a highly infectious virus which mainly strikes young children. It is transmitted through contaminated food or water and once inside the body, the virus multiplies and spreads to the nervous system. In the worst cases, the infection leads to permanent paralysis.

In January this year, Asif Ali Zardari, the President of Pakistan launched a national vaccination campaign as part of an Emergency Plan to tackle polio. Mr Zardari was seen administering a polio vaccine to a child at the start of the campaign. With the rising number of polio cases in 2011, UNICEF’s South Asia Regional Director said “we must ensure access to all children as specified in the president’s National Emergency Action Plan for Polio Eradication in Pakistan.”

The greatest number of cases has occurred in the Balochistan province of Pakistan, where 22 polio victims have been confirmed. However, emphasis is being placed on ensuring all children receive polio vaccinations, since over the past five years, the virus has spread to new areas which were not previously affected. Earlier this year, a two-year-old girl contracted the disease in the Diamer district of Gilgit-Baltistan in the north. And cases have also been reported in Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The next vaccination campaign is scheduled to take place in September, targeting 16.5 million children across the districts of Pakistan most at risk. However, the task is a huge one, especially with the displacement of people caused by the recent floods. In its statement, UNICEF admits that “tireless efforts and commitment” will be needed in Pakistan if polio is to be fought successfully.

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