WHO warns of more polio cases
There are now 17 confirmed polio cases in Xinjiang and the number is expected to continue rising, the World Health Organisation warns.
Seven new cases were confirmed last week, said Oliver Rosenbauer, a spokesman for the organisation, on Wednesday. All of the victims - nine adults and eight children aged from four months to two years old - have suffered some degree of paralysis. One person among the 17 has died.
Until this outbreak, China had been considered polio-free for the past 12 years. The last reported case was an imported one linked to India. All of the new cases have been genetically linked to the wild poliovirus type 1 (WPV1) circulating in Pakistan.
Rosenbauer, who is based in Geneva, said he expected more cases, but the outbreak does not appear 'explosive' and is unlikely to match the scale of an epidemic in Tajikistan earlier this year which caused over 400 people to fall ill and killed dozens.
He said the controlled nature of the Xinjiang outbreak was due to a rapid response. The Ministry of Health told the WHO in August that WPV1 had been isolated in four Xinjiang residents who had gone into paralysis between July 3 and 19. The number of cases rose to 10, spreading in three southern prefectures. WHO director general Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun praised Beijing for an 'impressive response to this setback'.
Polio, a contagious viral illness that in its most severe form causes paralysis, difficulty breathing and sometimes death, can be prevented by vaccination. The new outbreak has prompted an intensive vaccination campaign in the Uygur-dominated region. By the end of last month, more than 4.8 residents aged 15 to 39 in Xinjiang had taken the oral polio vaccination. A second round for children under five in some areas and children under 15 in others was conducted from Saturday to Wednesday, and residents of southern Xinjiang will get their turn next month.
The outbreak is the latest setback to a global campaign to eradicate polio, now endemic in only four countries - Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and Nigeria. In 1988, when the drive began, the virus paralysed nearly 1,000 children a day. The WHO last month rated as 'high' the risk of further spreading of WPV1 from Pakistan, given the expected large-scale population movements of the Umrah and haj in November, both of which are pilgrimages to Mecca.
Health Department director Lam Ping-yan said the outbreak is unlikely to have an impact on Hong Kong. 'Polio is not our concern,' he said on the sidelines of a WHO meeting in Manila. But Rosenbauer said the city is not free of risk - rather, the risk is relatively low here because of a high vaccination rate and good sanitation.