Health officials in Haiti are facing a deadly mystery illness

Officials from the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization, along with colleagues from Haiti’s Ministry of Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are looking into four deadly cases of paralysis in recovering cholera patients in Haiti, and are likely to rule out polio as a cause, pending laboratory results.

Experts including toxicologists are investigating possible contamination at a hospital or at home from medication, food, or another source as the cause of death in these cases. Health officials are conducting field studies and will report their findings as soon as laboratory results are available.

Polio was one of the first possibilities looked into because of the public health implications. However, the clinical characteristics and epidemiology of these cases make poliomyelitis a remote possibility, said the Pan American Health Organization. In simple terms, polio does not produce a high mortality rate, it said. Although considered highly unlikely, polio has not been completely ruled out, pending laboratory results of samples.

The agency has suggested that health officials remain vigilant for further cases and has supported local health authorities in the investigation with technical staff including
epidemiologists, a clinician and an immunization nurse to continue the investigations. A nurse returned from visiting the affected communities Monday with samples from some of the families.

Field epidemiologists and local health authorities from the Department of Nord-Ouest first reported a cluster of acute neurological syndromes in that department Jan. 10. As of Monday, four cases with acute neurological syndrome, including three deaths, were reported, with dates of onset from November to December 2010 in the La Pointe area, Commune Port-de-Paix, and the neighboring commune of Saint Louis du Nord. All of the cases were seen at the same cholera treatment center and returned two to four days later with neurological symptoms, at which point they were hospitalized.

Polio was eradicated from the Americas in 1994, three years after the last case was reported in Junín, Peru. A global polio eradication initiative was launched in 1988 and has reduced the incidence of polio worldwide by more than 99 percent. When it was launched in 1988, more than 350,000 children were paralyzed in more than 125 countries. In 2009, 1,595 children were paralyzed in 24 countries. Today, only four countries remain endemic: Afghanistan, India, Nigeria, and Pakistan, and in those countries with endemic poliovirus transmission, cases of poliomyelitis had declined by 85 percent in 2010 compared to the same period in 2009.

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