Call them the ultimate anti-vaxxers.
In parts of Pakistan, Islamic militants intimidate and threaten parents who want their children vaccinated against life-threatening diseases, telling them it’s part of a Western plot. Brave health care workers risk their lives to administer vaccines, and more than 30 of them have been killed in the past two years.
The militants’ actions have contributed to outbreaks of polio – a highly contagious, crippling, incurable and potentially fatal disease once considered all but eradicated after a 25-year campaign inoculated billions of children. The World Health Organization estimates that 10 million people are walking today thanks to that global effort.
Now the WHO is calling the levels of polio cases across at least 10 countries an international public health emergency, citing in particular Pakistan, Syria and Cameroon for allowing the disease to spread beyond their borders. The WHO’s declaration effectively puts restrictions on those countries that require their citizens to show proof of vaccination before traveling abroad.
Other countries where cases of polio have been reported are Nigeria, Ethiopia, Equatorial Guinea, Somalia, Iraq and Pakistan. Conflict – like that in Syria now – encourages spread of disease because so many displaced people are living in close quarters with poor sanitation and less access to medical care. In Nigeria, as in Pakistan, Islamic militants have killed vaccinators.
Given the rising number of parents in the United States who don’t allow their children to be inoculated, health officials here should consider not allowing unvaccinated American children to travel to any countries where polio has broken out lest they be infected and bring the disease back with them. Besides coming down with polio themselves, they could transmit the disease to those who are unable to be vaccinated, including newborns and people with compromised immune systems.
Polio has been eradicated in the United States since 1979, but the nation must still be on its guard against a resurgence. The combination of an increasing anti-vaccination community, a highly contagious disease, and air travel that can have someone from Pakistan arriving at Sea-Tac Airport less than 22 hours later is a potentially dangerous one.
The WHO is right to take a tough stand on travel from affected countries. The dread disease of polio should not be allowed to claim the lives and limbs of a new generation of victims.