Europe to be declared free of polio virus

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The Independent Online

The polio virus, which crippled thousands of children in the industrialised world in the 1950s, has been eradicated from Europe.

The polio virus, which crippled thousands of children in the industrialised world in the 1950s, has been eradicated from Europe.

A meeting of the World Health Organisation on Friday is expected to declare that after a decades-long vaccination programme 51 European nations are now officially free of the potentially fatal virus.

The WHO has declared the Americas and Western Pacific virus-free and Europe is likely to join the list because there has not been an outbreak of indigenous polio for more than three years. Certification will be a milestone for public health organisations that beat the virus through immunisation.

Polio most commonly affects children under three. Cases have decreased by 99.8 per cent since 1988, from an estimated 350,000 cases to 600 in 2001. Polio epidemics caused panic every summer during the 1940s and 50s in industrialised countries. At the time, people with polio affecting the respiratory muscles were immobilised inside "iron lungs", huge metal cylinders that operated like a pair of bellows to regulate their breathing and keep them alive.

Soon after the introduction of effective vaccines in the late 1950s and early 1960s, polio was brought under control, and almost eliminated as a public- health problem in industrialised countries.

It took longer for polio to be recognised as a severe problem in developing countries. However, "lameness surveys" during the 1970s revealed that the disease was frequent, crippling thousands of children every year. Routine immunisation was introduced worldwide, helping to control the disease. The only remaining reservoirs of virus transmission are in parts of Africa and south Asia.

The disease causes paralysis, which is almost always permanent, and in the most severe cases it can lead to death by asphyxiation. The virus enters through the mouth and then multiplies in the throat and intestines. The initial symptoms include fever, fatigue, headaches, vomiting, constipation, or less commonly diarrhoea, stiffness in the neck and pain in the limbs.

The latest case of indigenous polio was recorded in November 1998 in Turkey. Health workers were due to celebrate disease free status on the third anniversary of the outbreak last year when there were fears the virus had returned.

But genetic tests on a polio-stricken child in a Romany community in Bulgaria proved the virus had been imported from the Indian sub-continent.

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