BANGKOK—At least seven children along Burma’s border with Bangladesh have confirmed cases of polio, but how they acquired the crippling virus remains a mystery.
The World Health Organization (WHO) says seven children in Maungdaw township, Rakhine state, were found during medical examinations to have spread the infection to one another. But the Burmese official media say the virus entered the country through Bangladesh.
“We have even gone outside of Rakhine also, and the sample has been taken, so we are waiting for the results. So we can say that this outbreak is confined” to Rakhine state, said Nihal Singh, a medical officer for infectious diseases at the WHO Rangoon office.
Unlike the single polio infection in Burma in 2006, which was caused by a polio vaccine, the current outbreak is highly contagious, Singh said. “This is the virus which spreads like anything, and our latest information is that this virus resembles the virus circulating in Bangladesh,” he said.
Children can contract polio from food, after which it spreads through the intestinal tract, Singh added.
We’re very far along in polio eradication globally, so outbreaks of paralytic polio anywhere are a major concern.
Chris Beyrer, associate professor at the Johns Hopkins University school of public health, called the polio outbreak a cause for serious worry.
“We’re very far along in polio eradication globally, so outbreaks of paralytic polio anywhere are a major concern,” Beyrer said, adding that Burmese health monitoring is weak, and “of course there are large parts of the country that are not well surveyed at all.”
“We always have to be cautious about statements about a lot of areas but particularly in things such as infectious disease surveillance,” he said, referring to the junta’s claim in 2000 that Burma was polio-free. “This junta has really grossly under-funded health care for two decades now,” Beyrer said.
Asked about the government’s assertion that this polio outbreak originated in Bangladesh, he added: “I think in general they have been very sensitive to accusations that they are the epicenter for infectious diseases for their neighbors. So I think you have to see it in the wider political context.”
“Now the fact is that there is very good evidence that the mismanaged malaria program in Burma has indeed played an important role in generating drug resistant malaria both on the India-Burma border as well as the Thai-Burma border. So in other disease situations, and this goes for HIV as well, they have been seen as playing this role. So they are very sensitive to the accusation that this is their problem.”
In a 2006 report, the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health charged that Burmese government policies were sharply restricting health and humanitarian aid in the Southeast Asian country—creating “an environment where AIDS, drug-resistant tuberculosis, malaria, and bird flu (H5N1) are spreading unchecked.”
WHO, along with the governments of Bangladesh and Burma, has sent emergency teams to the region to administer vaccines and try to contain the virus, he said.
We have even gone outside of Rakhine also, and the sample has been taken, so we are waiting for the results. So we can say that this outbreak is confined.
The official Myanmar Times newspaper quoted a Burmese Health Ministry official as saying that the polio strain found in Rakhine state had never previously been detected in Burma.
“This is a situation in which the virus had been transmitted across the border from a neighboring country,” he was quoted as saying, referring to Bangladesh.
UNICEF and the Burmese Health Ministry plan to vaccinate more than 500,000 children under the age of five in 17 townships in western Rakhine and Chin state, the newspaper said, with a second round of vaccinations in June to 2.5 million children in Rakhine and Chin states, and in Magway, Ayeyarwaddy, and western Bago divisions.
A planned third round will provide repeat vaccinations to children in the same regions, the report said.
The Burmese junta declared the country free of polio in 2000. Polio is spread when people, mainly children under five, come into contact with the feces of those with the virus, often through water.
The virus attacks the central nervous system, causing paralysis, muscular atrophy and deformation and, in some cases, death.
Vaccines developed in 1955 by Jonas Salk and in 1962 by Albert Sabin are credited with reducing of the annual number of polio cases from many hundreds of thousands to around 1,000.
Original reporting by Kyaw Min Htun for RFA’s Burmese service. Burmese service director: Nancy Shwe. Additional reporting by David Beasley in Washington. Produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.