LONDON — For the first time ever, the World Health Organization today declared the spread of polio an international public health emergency that could grow in the next few months and unravel the nearly three-decade effort to eradicate the crippling disease.
The agency described current polio outbreaks across at least 10 countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East as an “extraordinary event” that required a coordinated international response.
It identified Pakistan, Syria and Cameroon as having allowed the virus to spread beyond their borders, and recommended that those three governments require citizens to obtain a certificate proving they have been vaccinated for polio before traveling abroad.
“Until it is eradicated, polio will continue to spread internationally, find and paralyze susceptible kids,” Dr. Bruce Aylward, who leads WHO’s polio efforts, said during a press briefing.
Critics, however, questioned whether today’s announcement would make much of a difference, given the limits faced by governments confronting not only polio but armed insurrection and widespread poverty.
The WHO has never before issued an international alert on polio, a disease that usually strikes children under 5 and is most often spread through infected water. There is no specific cure, but several vaccines exist.