The Philippines has confirmed at least one case of polio and detected the virus in at least three regions, health officials said Thursday in announcing an outbreak 19 years after the nation was declared free of the disease that leads to paralysis or death.
Health Secretary Francisco Duque III made the announcement at a news conference, following confirmation that a 3-year-old girl had contracted polio in southern Lanao del Sur province.
“If we do not take appropriate actions now, polio will return,” the health chief told reporters. “We need to urgently act to stop its spread in our communities.”
Duque said sewage in the capital Manila and waterways in the southern Davao region were also confirmed to contain the virus. Polio, short for poliomyelitis, has no known cure and causes nerve injury.
Investigators were also awaiting results of another suspected case of polio, he said, without releasing more details.
The last known case of wild poliovirus recorded in the Philippines was in 1993, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), which declared the Southeast Asian nation polio-free in 2000.
Dr. Rabindra Abeyasinghe, WHO’s representative in the Philippines, said the agency was working closely with local health officials and UNICEF to respond to the outbreak.
“We are very concerned that polio viruses are now circulating in Manila, Davao, and Lanao del Sur,” Abeyasinghe said in a statement, as he urged parents and caregivers to make sure children younger than five receive the vaccine.
Polio’s symptoms include fever, fatigue, headache, vomiting, stiff neck and sudden onset of floppy arms or legs. A severe case among children younger than five can lead to permanent paralysis or even death, according to WHO.
More than 18 million people worldwide are able to walk today and 1.5 million childhood deaths have been averted because of the oral polio vaccine (OPV), which was introduced in 1988, reducing cases by more than 99 percent, the WHO statement said.
OPV contains a weakened form of the virus and activates an immune response in the body. When a child is immunized with OPV, the weakened virus replicates in the intestine for a limited period, thereby developing immunity by building up antibodies, WHO said.
If a population is not sufficiently immunized, the weakened virus can continue to circulate. The longer it is allowed to survive, the more changes it undergoes, it said.
“It is deeply disconcerting that poliovirus has re-emerged in the Philippines after nearly two decades. The outbreak calls for urgent action to protect more children from being infected,” said Oyun Dendevnorov, the representative in the Philippines for the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
“As long as one single child remains infected, children across the country and even beyond are at risk of contracting polio,” Dendevnorov added.
Duque said a massive oral immunization program would be launched nationwide next month.
“It is the only way to stop the polio outbreak and to protect your child against this paralyzing disease,” he said.
Duque’s statement came amid an ongoing measles outbreak and dengue epidemic in the country as a result of mistrust generated by a recent scandal involving Dengvaxia, a drug developed by French firm Sanofi Pasteur to counter dengue.
More than 830,000 children received Dengvaxia when the country launched an immunization program in 2016, but Philippine authorities ordered Sanofi to stop selling and marketing the vaccine the following year after health officials linked the drug to the deaths of at least three children.
A government investigation found no conclusive evidence that Dengvaxia caused the deaths and Sanofi officials said the vaccine was safe.