Polio – What It Is and What to Do


By Surihe Gaomas WINDHOEK When one person is infected with polio, it can be estimated that 200 other people could also be infected with the highly contagious virus. This is what epidemiologists say in the wake of the quick spread of the “wild polio” virus that has claimed seven lives and infected 34 others. Not only did the latest sudden outbreak leave health authorities concerned about the rather fast pace at which the virus spread, but the same concerns were raised by the general public. Investigations are, however, still underway to verify how the polio virus spread so fast and whether it was an indigenous case or whether it was imported.” It spread quite fast and it is frightening,” said Dr Jack Vries, chairperson of the Emergency Preparedness and Management Committee. Although Namibians may have heard about polio, many of them still do not know what kind of an illness it is. Since the Ministry of Health’s Permanent Secretary Dr Kalumbi Shangula confirmed the “wild polio” outbreak that killed seven people and infected 34 others, there has been public fear and numerous queries raised as to what polio is and how one can prevent it in the first place. In an effort to fully explain the disease that has hit the three regions of Khomas, Hardap and Otjozondjupa, New Era takes a closer look at what the Wild Polio Virus Type 1 (PV1) is all about. In the wake of the confirmation of the polio virus, every person living within the borders of Namibia will be vaccinated against polio through an upcoming mass vaccination campaign. Polio is highly infectious and can affect the nervous system, sometimes resulting in paralysis. It’s transmitted through contaminated food and drinking water and contact with faeces from an infected person. At a press conference on Tuesday this week, Permanent Secretary Shangula said the virus is mostly found in the throat and intestines and released in the faeces of an infected person. In order to prevent it, strict hygiene must be ensured. “It is important that when you eat you must wash your hands (with soap and water). It can spread if you eat with unclean hands,” explained Dr Shangula. The latest outbreak of the confirmed “wild polio” virus is said to be a major setback for Namibia which was close to being declared a polio-free country by the World Health Organisation in October this year. This is the first suspected polio outbreak in more than a decade. The last polio case occurred way back in 1995. “Namibia was polio-free for the last 10 years. The last case was in 1995. It is quite a setback for us because we where moving closer to achieving polio-free status”. According to Dr Vries, the polio virus is not airborne, but can be contracted in places where there’s contaminated water or food or through infected stools. Polio infection may be mild causing no symptoms. After three to 21 days after infection a slight fever and sore throat may develop. When severe, it may cause inflammation of the brain and spinal cord with severe headache, high fever, neck stiffness and backache. Sometimes paralysis of one or more limbs may occur. If the respiratory muscles are affected, breathing becomes difficult. Based on Information from the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, there is no specific treatment or cure for polio infection and it can only be prevented through immunisation. Symptomatic therapy with painkillers, for example, is usually all that’s necessary when infection is mild. If the infection is severe, admission to hospital may be needed particularly if respiration is affected when ventilation may be necessary. However, the general public is being requested to remain calm as the situation is under control by the Ministry of Health and development partners.