UNICEF and WHO ready to support immediate polio vaccination campaign in Ukraine

United Nations agencies are concerned further delay puts 1.8 million children's lives at risk.

Six weeks after the outbreak of poliomyelitis in Ukraine, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and WHO have stepped up calls for an immediate first round of nationwide polio vaccination.

Ukraine's Ministry of Health confirmed two cases of polio on 1 September 2015. The cases occurred in two children living in the Zakarpatska Region, in southwestern Ukraine. The children, aged 10 months and 4 years, had not been vaccinated against the disease.

If measures are not taken immediately, the virus could spread across Ukraine, endangering the lives of 1.8 million children. The risk of further polio cases remains unless a full-scale immunization campaign begins at once to stop the transmission of the polio virus. 

International guidelines state that only one polio case constitutes an outbreak, requiring an urgent response owing to the speed with which polio can spread if all children are not fully immunized. The outbreak and low level of vaccination rates in Ukraine put children's health and well-being at risk and threatens Europe's polio-free status. 

The outbreak can be rapidly stopped through nationwide immunization of children with three rounds of oral polio vaccines, according to the guidelines of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. UNICEF has procured 3.7 million doses of oral polio vaccine for Ukraine, with funding from the Government of Canada. WHO has confirmed that the vaccines are WHO-prequalified, entirely safe and ready to use.

"The longer the polio virus is allowed to circulate in Ukraine, the higher the risk that this outbreak will spread and paralyse more children. We call on decision-makers and health-care providers in Ukraine to take immediate action and vaccinate all children to urgently stop the transmission of the virus," said Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe. 

This is the first polio outbreak to strike Ukraine in 19 years, revealing the vulnerability of children in the country. These two cases highlight once again the importance of full vaccination coverage for all children. 

"Government authorities have the responsibility to protect children against this debilitating disease. I am pleased that, today, 70 per cent of Ukrainian mothers are aware of the benefits of vaccination to protect their children. Vaccination rounds should start now," said Marie-Pierre Poirier, UNICEF Regional Director for Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States. 

Ukraine's political leaders must take the decision to support the outbreak response measures and to launch a nationwide immunization campaign to protect children from avoidable paralysis and possible death.

UNICEF and WHO are on standby to support the campaign.