United Nations health experts have been sent to Tajikistan following a small polio outbreak and planning is under way to vaccinate over 1 million children under five in the impoverished central Asian country, UN officials said today.
The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), in cooperation with the Government and its partners, will fly out enough vaccine on Monday to immunize 1.1 million children against the highly infectious – and sometime fatal but now largely eradicated – disease that once spread fear among parents worldwide since it mostly targets children. Global vaccination has now brought polio to the brink of total eradication.
The vaccine is currently in UNICEF’s Copenhagen warehouse and will be delivered in three rounds of immunization, at a cost of $614,000 for the 3.3 million doses, agency spokesperson Christiane Berthiaume told a news briefing in Geneva. Rotary International has contributed $500,000 to the campaign.
The UN World Health Organization (WHO) is waiting for confirmation from Tajik health authorities that seven children have been paralysed, WHO spokesperson Dan Epstein said, adding that the outbreak is significant as it would be the first importation of polio into WHO’s European region, of which Tajikistan is a part, since Europe was certified as polio-free in 2002.
Geographically Tajikistan is close to two polio-endemic countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan, but experience shows that the virus can travel far and geographical proximity is not necessarily the determinant, WHO Polio Eradication Initiative official Sonia Bari said. Last month, UN agencies and the Afghan health ministry conducted a three-day campaign to vaccinate some 7.7 million children under the age of five against polio.
Three WHO technical experts have already been sent to Tajikistan and three more will arrive on Sunday, while surrounding countries are being asked to step up surveillance for acute flaccid paralysis, a sign of polio, and to look into immunization rates in the surrounding areas to ensure children are adequately protected, Ms. Bari said.
Genetic sequencing is under way to identify the origin of the outbreak, she added, noting that while routine immunization coverage in Tajikistan is around 87 per cent, there are sub-pockets in all countries, including remote rural areas, which are less well vaccinated than others.
In terms of achieving the goal of global eradication in view of these outbreaks, Ms. Bari voiced a sense of optimism, particularly as WHO is witnessing signs of progress never seen before in the world’s four remaining endemic countries – Afghanistan, India, Nigeria and Pakistan. In Nigeria in particular immense advances have been made; last year at this time Africa’s most populous country had 193 cases; this year it has only two.
Local ownership and management of the anti-polio programme there has brought a sea change, she added, noting that in two polio-endemic states in India, for the first time since records were kept, there had been no new cases of type one polio for the past four months.