HEADLINES Published December2, 2015 By Bernadette Strong

UN Says Ukraine Polio Outbreak Should Be a “State of Emergency”

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A child receiving the oral polio vaccine.
(Photo : Majid Saeedi, Getty Images)

The World Health Organization is urging the health authorities in Ukraine to declare a state of emergency because of a continuing polio outbreak. This move is meant to put more pressure on the Ukrainian government in Kiev to act on the problem.

There were two cases of polio in children in Ukraine in September. These are the first polio cases in Europe since 2010. WHO, which is the health agency of the United Nations, recommended that Ukraine declare an emergency and "respond to the polio outbreak as quickly and effectively as possible." Half of Ukraine's children have not been vaccinated against polio.

The cases in Ukraine are due to what is called circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus and occurred in the southwestern part of the country, bordering on Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland. Circulating vaccine-derived polioviruses are rare strains of poliovirus that can emerge in populations that have not been adequately immunized. When someone is immunized with oral polio vaccine, a weakened form of the virus replicates in the intestine, which leads to the production of antibodies.

This virus is also excreted, which is usually good because that spreads the weakened virus in the community offer protection to other children through 'passive' immunization before dying out. But if a population is seriously under-immunized, the excreted virus can continue to circulate for a longer time. The longer it survives, the more genetic changes it undergoes. In very rare situations, the virus can genetically change into a stronger form that can paralyze, which is the circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus.

A proper public health response to this type of an outbreak is at least three large-scale immunization drives with oral polio vaccine within 2 weeks of confirmation of the outbreak and the public declaration of the outbreak as a national public health emergency, according to a WHO website.

Polio is a highly infectious, paralyzing disease. The disease has on the brink of being wiped out for several years. Aside from Ukraine, cases have only been reported in six other countries this year, with most cases in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

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