Unvaccinated children in Ukraine at heightened risk of polio, UN agencies warn

Children sit and lie on the floor while other children walk nearby, in a kindergarten in the city of Debaltseve, Donetsk Oblast (province), Ukraine. Photo: UNICEF/Aleksey Filippov

9 October 2015 – With Ukraine’s Ministry of Health recently confirming two cases of polio in the country, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) are calling for an immediate polio vaccine campaign in the country.

Speaking at a joint WHO and UNICEF press conference in Kiev, Ukraine, today, Olivier Rosenbauer, Communication Officer in the WHO Polio Department, said that one case of polio already constituted an outbreak, as it was assumed that at least additional 199 were infected with the virus, but did not have any symptoms and could spread the virus.

The Ukrainian Ministry of Health was working hard to prepare the vaccination campaign, added Mr. Rosenbauer, and WHO was supporting the authorities to launch the campaign as rapidly as possible, a key factor as the outbreak was confirmed six weeks ago.

The internationally agreed Polio Response Guidelines, if fully implemented, could stop the outbreak, stressed Mr. Rosenbauer. He said they were still missing the final go-ahead from the highest level of State and Government in support of the Ministry of Health.

UNICEF Spokesperson Mr. Christopher Boulierac said that the vaccines were on the ground and all the operational practicalities and teams were in place. UNICEF and WHO are ready to support and are awaiting the launch of the campaign by the Ukraine Government.

WHO and UNICEF, noting that the longer the virus was allowed to circulate, the higher the risk of children being paralyzed, urged political leaders in Ukraine to take ownership of the issue and deliver the required vaccinations. Some political leaders, noted Mr. Rosenbauer, still questioned the existence of an outbreak.

The outbreak occurred because of vaccination coverage gaps in Ukraine, with as many as 50 per cent of the children not fully vaccinated against polio. The war was a complicating factor, but the main reason was the low vaccination coverage rate which predated the conflict.

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