A mass vaccination program is underway in Xinjiang following an outbreak of polio that has left at least one infant dead. The World Health Organization has confirmed seven cases of wild poliovirus type 1 in the province over the past two months. (Update: Chinese officials have now confirmed 10 cases.) It is the first outbreak of polio in China in more than a decade. The disease, which can cause irreversible paralysis, is said to have spread from Pakistan, one of the few countries in which polio is still endemic.
The first cases were detected in July, four young children aged between four months and two years from Hotan (sometimes written Khotan) Prefecture. The Chinese government notified the WHO at the beginning of this month. Hotan is a sparsely populated region of 1.8 million people, mostly Uighurs, in 250,000 square kilometers on the southern rim of the Taklamakan Desert. It borders Pakistan to the west, India to the south and includes the disputed Aksai Chin, part of Kashmir that China controls but India claims. The blocking of historic trade routes between Hotan and India because of the dispute has boosted Hotan’s links with Pakistan.
The vaccination program applies to 3.8 million children in Xinjiang, all under 15 years old in the outbreak areas and all under 5 in the other parts of the province. The first phase was completed earlier this month. A second phase will take place early next month. (Update: With four cases now reported in young adults, the vaccination program is being expanded to cover 4.5 million 15-39 years olds in southern Xinjiang.)