Nationwide polio immunization campaign under way in Ukraine

After an outbreak of circulating vaccine derived poliovirus was reported in Ukraine in September, a vaccination campaign using the oral polio vaccine has been launched.

Nearly three million children under the age of six will be vaccinated in the first round of polio vaccination campaigns.
Nearly three million children under the age of six will be vaccinated in the first round of polio vaccination campaigns. UNICEF

A nationwide vaccination campaign with oral polio vaccine was launched today in Ukraine in response to a polio outbreak in the country. WHO applauded the decision taken by the Ministry of Health to begin the campaign, which is mandated by international guidelines as part of a comprehensive outbreak response. “With the campaign now under way, we call on health care providers and parents in Ukraine to exercise their right and responsibility to vaccinate all children in the designated age groups urgently to stop transmission of this dreaded virus,” said Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe.

The first phase of the campaign will target 2.85 million children under the age of 6. At least two additional rounds, with one targeting 4.75 million children up to 10 years, are expected to follow at 1-month intervals. The vaccine is to be given free to all children in the designated age groups.

On 1 September, Ukraine’s Minister of Health announced that polio had been identified as the cause of paralysis in two children, aged 10 months and 4 years. The children live in Zakarpatskaya oblast in the south-western part of Ukraine.

Paralysis occurs in approximately one out of 200 polio infections, so each case detected means that hundreds of individuals have been infected. So far, no additional cases have been detected, but millions of under-immunized children in the country are at acute risk.

In accordance with international outbreak guidelines and protocols, the detection of even one case of polio constitutes an outbreak requiring an urgent response. Since confirmation of the poliovirus cases in Ukraine, WHO and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) have been providing the Ministry of Health with both technical and on-site support to plan large-scale supplementary vaccination activities, strengthen surveillance for cases of acute flaccid paralysis (to monitor polio), step up environmental surveillance and train health workers to answer questions about the vaccine and to administer it.

WHO is also conducting an assessment to determine the risk and potential routes of transmission of the virus within and beyond the borders of Ukraine. The risk of further spread of this strain within the country is deemed to be high because of the low polio vaccine coverage. WHO currently considers that the risk of international spread from Ukraine is low but notes that the infected oblast shares borders with four countries –Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia. WHO continues to monitor the situation closely.

Oral polio vaccine is the most effective means of stopping the spread of poliovirus and ensuring collective immunity. Vaccines for the outbreak response were procured by UNICEF with funds donated by the Government of Canada. They were delivered to Ukraine in strict accordance with WHO standards for packaging, shipping and storage, including monitoring and assessing temperature fluctuations. As an extra safety precaution, each bottle of vaccine is equipped with a vaccine vial monitor, which registers cumulative heat exposure over time and indicates whether it was ever stored improperly.

A major priority of the campaign will be to ensure that the vaccines are consistently delivered to all areas and, most urgently, to the known infected area. They will also be delivered to areas affected by the current conflict in the country.

WHO recommends that all countries, in particular those from which there is frequent travel and contacts with polio-affected countries and areas, strengthen surveillance for cases of acute flaccid paralysis and maintain high routine immunization coverage. All travelers to polio-affected areas should be fully vaccinated against polio.

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