MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) on Wednesday said Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Peru are at very high risk for the reintroduction of polio, as dwindling vaccination rates during the coronavirus pandemic has led to historic lows in protection against the illness.
Regional vaccine coverage for polio has fallen to about 79%, the lowest since 1994, PAHO said.
Earlier this month, New York Governor Kathy Hochul declared a disaster emergency in a bid to accelerate efforts to vaccinate residents against polio after the virus was detected in wastewater samples taken in four counties. Cases also have been detected in London and Jerusalem.
"Lets be very clear," PAHO director Carissa Etienne told reporters. "Polio is not a treatable disease. Prevention is the only option, and prevention is only possible with vaccines."
Polio can cause irreversible paralysis in some cases, but can be prevented by a vaccine first made available in 1955. While there is no known cure, three injections of the vaccine provide nearly 100% immunity.
Etienne said dwindling vaccination caused by the coronavirus pandemic had left many unprotected from polio, after vaccines had eradicated the disease in the region 30 years earlier.
She added that Argentina, the Bahamas, Ecuador, Panama, Suriname and Venezuela also had been identified as high-risk countries, and that nearly all of South America currently has vaccine coverage below 80%.
There are currently no confirmed polio cases in Latin America and the Caribbean, but PAHO urged all countries in the region to strengthen surveillance and proactively reach unvaccinated communities.
"I really cannot state this strongly enough," Etienne said. "As we saw in New York state, the polio virus can appear and spread quickly and quietly in communities with insufficient vaccine coverage."
Polio terrified parents around the world for the first half of the 20th century. Affecting mainly children under five, it is often asymptomatic but can also cause symptoms including fever and vomiting. Around one in 200 infections leads to irreversible paralysis, and among those patients, up to 10% die.
(The story adds dropped words at end of first paragraph.)
(Reporting by Sarah Morland; Writing by Anthony Esposito; Editing by Christian Plumb and Bill Berkrot)
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