Eradication a must with polio ‘just a plane ride away’
A national health alert was issued in Australia on 13 July after a 22-year-old Pakistani student was diagnosed with polio, the first case of the virus in the country in 21 years. The student, Zaheer Ahmed, apparently contracted the disease on a recent trip to Pakistan, one of just four countries – along with Afghanistan, India, and Nigeria – still polio-endemic.
His symptoms included initial paralysis, and during his recovery at Melbourne’s Box Hill Hospital, Ahmed was kept in isolation until he tested negative for the virus. He was released on 9 August. Fortunately, Australia’s system of routine immunizations made an outbreak there unlikely.
Meanwhile, two cases of polio were detected in July in Chad, one of them near the Darfur region of Sudan. A cross-border emergency response was planned, and Rotary’s PolioPlus Partners program quickly released US$241,000 to support urgent preventive immunization activities in Sudan, which had previously requested the funds through the Open Projects List (PDF).
Robert S. Scott, chair of The Rotary Foundation Trustees and the International PolioPlus Committee, called the new cases a “wake-up call” and said they prove “beyond a doubt that polio in your polio-free country is just a plane ride away. It’s essential to continue with the PolioPlus program.”
Melbourne-area Rotarians reacted promptly to support Ahmed’s recovery after learning about his case from fellow Australian Rotarian Jenny Horton, who works in Pakistan as a consultant for the World Health Organization on the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.
Because the student’s clothing had been confiscated when he went into quarantine, arrangements were made to provide him with new clothes. Jennifer Coburn, of the Rotary Club of Mont Albert & Surrey Hills, visited the patient in isolation after verifying her own polio immunization. She brought Ahmed books, puzzles, and the daily newspaper.
“This is a definite and very easy way to assist a person in need of support,” said Coburn, noting how far the student was from his family and the intense media scrutiny he’d been under after the alert was issued. “He is really delighted that he is receiving support from Rotary. The need for human interaction is so important.”
Since Rotary launched its PolioPlus program in 1985, more than two billion children have received the oral polio vaccine, and the number of cases has declined by 99 percent. Today, more than 500,000 cases of polio are prevented each year through the work of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.