An outbreak of polio in Indonesia, which has sickened 226 people mostly children could worsen in the coming months and spread to neighboring countries in Southeast Asia, the U.N. health agency warned Wednesday.
But the World Health Organization also expressed confidence that a nationwide campaign to vaccinate all children under 5, which starts next week, should halt the spread of the crippling disease.
"Polio is not only an issue in Indonesia because it's paralyzing children but it's an international issue," said Dr. David Heymann, who heads up WHO's worldwide polio eradication campaign.
"The (initial) response has not stopped the transmission of polio virus in Indonesia and that virus just as it came here from the African continent could now go from here to a neighboring country and become implanted in that country if protection rates for polio were low," Heymann said.
Although he said he believed Indonesia "would control its outbreak," he warned that the rainy season which begins in October could complicate efforts to fight the disease.
"With the rains, there will be an easier transmission of polio from person to person and that will increase the risk that the outbreak will grow," he said.
A 20-month-old toddler diagnosed with polio in March was the country's first case since 1995. Authorities believe the child came in contact with a migrant worker or tourist who was infected in the Middle East or Africa.
Since then, Indonesia has seen a steady increase of cases mostly on the country's main island of Java. But the virus has also spread to Sumatra Island, where 10 cases in Lampung province have been reported, reports the AP.
According to Reuters, Indonesia's government along with the WHO and the United Nations children's agency UNICEF plan to kick off the nationwide vaccination scheme on Aug. 30, with the second round on Sept. 27, involving some 750,000 vaccinators at 245,000 immunization posts.
"If these two rounds reach every child targeted, that should stop the transmissions," Heymann said.
He said the vaccine was safe, following reports by local media of the death of three infants earlier this year after receiving polio vaccinations.
"The vaccine which is used here in Indonesia is the same vaccine that's been used throughout the world to vaccinate over 2 billion children, and this vaccine is one of the safest that is available," he said.
Two rounds of immunizations were carried out in late May and late June in West Java and Banten provinces and the capital Jakarta, reaching around six million children.