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Bessent: Polio's chilling new course

Mice get stressed out from being around male

Mice get stressed out from being around male researchers, but not female researchers. Credit: iStock

There's a killer on the move. After a quarter-century campaign to eradicate polio around the world, the crippling, deadly disease has almost been vanquished. But with instability and mistrust obstructing vaccination campaigns in three key countries, the disease could make a comeback.

The virus has recently spread from Pakistan to Afghanistan, from Syria to Iraq, and from Nigeria to Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea. Alarmed that the highly contagious illness is moving across national borders, the World Health Organization has declared a health emergency.

Taliban factions in Pakistan, have forbidden vaccinations in remote reaches of that country. Vaccination teams there are apparently viewed as western infiltrators. Some have been murdered. Terrorist groups in Nigeria have killed vaccinators, too. And civil war in Syria has made many areas of that country too dangerous for public health workers to reach.

The number of polio cases in the world remains low; only 74 so far in 2014. That's an extraordinary improvement from 1988, when the global polio eradication initiative was launched. Back then polio -- which paralyzes about 1 in 200 of its victims -- was paralyzing 350,000 people a year.

Wiping out a disease that afflicts humans is an audacious goal. It's only been done once. Smallpox was eradicated in 1979. Polio is tantalizingly close to becoming the second.

It would be a shame if the largest internationally coordinated public health effort in history were thwarted so close to the finish line.