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Polio Threatens To Spread Through Central Africa


In Central Africa, there are new fears that polio is on the move. Polio cases in Cameroon have spread to the tiny country of Equatorial Guinea, and there's concern it could spread even further in the region. Significant progress against polio has been made in much of the world this year. But global efforts to eradicate the virus could face a setback if polio gets a foothold in central Africa. Here's NPR's Jason Beaubien.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: The problem with polio cropping up in Equatorial Guinea is that polio vaccination rates for kids in that country are the lowest in the world. Despite being Africa's third-largest oil producer, Equatorial Guinea only manages to vaccinate 39 percent of its children against polio. The World Health Organization pushes countries to keep polio vaccination rates above 80 percent, and most nations are in the high 90s. One of the cases in Equatorial Guinea is on the mainland next door to Cameroon, and the other is in the capital of Malabo, which is on an island off the coast.

OLIVER ROSENBAUER: This is actually an outbreak from neighboring Cameroon, which has been ongoing and has spread. And so, for sure, it's a concern.

BEAUBIEN: Oliver Rosenbauer, with the WHO's Polio Eradication Initiative in Geneva says that efforts to contain the Cameroon outbreak have fallen flat. Seven kids in Cameroon have been paralyzed by polio since October. The number of actual cases is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of how far the poliovirus has spread. Rosenbauer says the Cameroon outbreak is expanding, and this could have grave consequences for other countries in the region.

ROSENBAUER: Notably, Central African Republic, right next door to Cameroon, is a large influx of vulnerable population movements, refugees. So the risk is very, very high that this outbreak is going to spread even further. It's absolutely critical that the transmission of the virus in Cameroon is stopped as quickly as possible.

BEAUBIEN: The Central African Republic also had terribly low child vaccination rates even before ethnic violence erupted there recently. Last week, the United Nations approved sending 12,000 peacekeepers to the country to try to stem violence between Christians and Muslims. Unfortunately, this is exactly the type of social unrest in which polio thrives. Nigeria remains the only country in Africa where polio transmission has never been fully stopped, and it's the primary source of the virus on the continent.

But Rosenbauer says Nigeria, this year, appears to be making significant progress against the disease. Only one case has been recorded in 2014 in the country, and even the strain of the virus that's flourishing in Cameroon right now came by way of Chad rather than Nigeria.

ROSENBAUER: We're actually concerned that virus is going to spread from Cameroon back into Nigeria and that you're going to see an outbreak in a polio-free area of Nigeria due to an importation from Cameroon. That's our concern at the moment.

BEAUBIEN: A deadly polio outbreak that hit the region late in 2010 sickened more than 500 people in Congo-Brazzaville and Gabon. Many of the victims were adults, and 190 of them died. Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

GOODWYN: That was an encore presentation of Jason Beaubien's report, which first aired earlier this week on Morning Edition. Since then, the World Health Organization has announced a third case of the poliovirus in Equatorial Guinea. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.