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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. The World Health Organization is ordering several countries to take new steps to stop polio. Officials at the WHO are concerned about polio outbreaks in Pakistan, Syria and Cameroon. They threaten to undermine the entire global polio eradication program. We have more from NPR's Jason Beaubien.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Many countries have been polio free for decades - mass vaccination programs wiped the virus out. But now, some of those disease-free countries are being re-infected. And the WHO says international air travel is the problem. So, today, in an unusual move, the WHO declared polio a public health emergency of international concern. This allows the WHO to order Pakistan, Syria and Cameroon to vaccinate all residents before they're allowed to travel internationally. They're focusing on these three countries because the WHO has been able to show, through genetic sequencing, that these are the only countries exporting the virus.

BRUCE AYLWARD: The Pakistan virus has been reported from Israel, from Iraq, from Syria. It was also found at one point in the sewage in the West Bank and Gaza.

BEAUBIEN: Bruce Aylward is the head of the WHO's polio program. The Pakistan virus also turned up in Cairo last year and caused an outbreak in China in 2011. The new WHO requirements call for Pakistan, Cameroon and Syria to vaccinate all international travelers at least four weeks prior to departure. Travelers would also have to carry proof of polio vaccination. This whole program might seem quite difficult in Syria, given the chaos of the current civil war, but Aylward says it's still doable.

AYLWARD: Yeah, I believe it's very much possible. If not 4 to 6 weeks prior to travel, because a lot of travel there right now, as everyone knows, quite unpredictable and on very short notice, certainly at point of departure.

BEAUBIEN: He says vaccinating people as they flow across the border is not ideal but it's better than nothing. Right now, 10 countries are reporting polio cases so far this year. Aylward says if the international spread isn't halted, the virus could establish itself in other war-torn countries, such as the Central African Republic or South Sudan. Over the last 25 years, the global eradication effort has driven the number of polio cases down from roughly 300,000 in the late 1980s to just 417 cases last year anywhere in the world. The WHO has set a goal of completely wiping out polio by 2018. Independent of today's emergency declaration, India put in similar polio vaccination requirements on travelers in March. India, which only got rid of the virus in 2011, now requires visitors from any country with polio cases to be vaccinated six weeks prior to entering India. The WHO hopes the new polio travel requirements will help isolate the virus and ultimately lead to its demise. The burden of putting these new travel rules in place falls to Pakistan, Syria and Cameroon. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Washington.

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