Polio Outbreak Crops Up in Indonesia

A polio outbreak that began last year in Nigeria has spread beyond Africa to Asia. The World Health Organization has announced 22 cases in Yemen, and now there's confirmation of one case, and possibly seven more, in Indonesia.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

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Polio is making a comeback. In 2003, only seven countries reported cases of polio. Then an outbreak occurred in Nigeria and spread across Africa. And now the World Health Organization has confirmed a case in Indonesia. That means there are 23 countries with cases of the disease. NPR's Joanne Silberner has the story.

JOANNE SILBERNER reporting:

Polio is on the move, says David Heymann. He's head of the World Health Organization's polio eradication effort.

Mr. DAVID HEYMANN (World Health Organization): Well, what's happening is that the virus from Africa has now taken to crossing the Red Sea, first to Saudi Arabia, then it's crossed to Yemen, and it's now crossed or gone through one of those two countries, into Indonesia.

SILBERNER: Yemen had had no cases of polio since 1996, but there have been 22 cases this year. Indonesia was also polio-free, and kept up a pretty good immunization program. Now there's one confirmed case and seven suspected ones in a mountainous semirural area on the island of Java. Again, David Heymann.

Mr. HEYMANN: What this shows is that no country's border is free from importation of any viral disease, including polio. But it also shows that this virus can find those children who are not vaccinated and paralyze them.

SILBERNER: The problem for Indonesia started in mid-March. An 18-month-old unimmunized child developed a sudden paralysis. On April 21st, a national lab gave its initial reading: polio. Yesterday, a WHO lab confirmed it.

The challenge now is to figure out how the virus got to a rural village, and to vaccinate children along the way. The effort is straining the finances of the already overburdened polio eradication effort. The WHO's Heymann says a $25 million emergency fund is gone, and he needs $50 million more quickly to deal with the outbreaks in Africa and Asia. Christopher Maher of the WHO just got back from the district in Indonesia where the case was identified. He says the country's response was immediate.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER MAHER (World Health Organization): And they started what's called an outbreak response immunization, which is just immunizing more children under the age of five in the immediate area of the case and the surrounding villages.

SILBERNER: The villages are in a district not affected by last December's tsunami. Maher says Indonesian officials are watching carefully to see if the disease somehow jumps to the crowded camps where people affected by the tsunami are living. The WHO's Heymann still believes the disease will be eradicated. He's just not saying how soon.

Mr. HEYMANN: We don't know when now, because this has been a setback. But these countries one time eliminated the polio virus, and we believe that they will do it again.

SILBERNER: What makes Heymann optimistic is a new polio vaccine. It creates an especially powerful immune response against the type of polio virus that's circulating now. Joanne Silberner, NPR News.

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