European Region remains free of polio, but not of polio-related risks, concludes expert panel

WHO

The WHO European Region has retained its poliomyelitis (polio)-free status, as assessed by the European Regional Certification Commission (RCC) for Poliomyelitis Eradication at its 32nd annual meeting, held on 30–31 May 2018 in Copenhagen, Denmark.

This independent panel of experts based its conclusion on the annual progress reports (APRs) for 2017 submitted by all 53 Member States of the Region. These APRs provided the basis on which each country assessed the risk of spread in the event of emergence or importation of poliovirus.

Three countries (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Romania and Ukraine) are of special concern to the RCC due to suboptimal immunization coverage, weakness in surveillance, supply shortages and other vulnerabilities. The RCC urged these countries to spare no effort to improve their polio programmes, as these weaknesses put their countries as well as the entire Region at risk.

Professor David Salisbury, Chair of both the Global Certification Commission (GCC) and the RCC, congratulated all countries for the timely submission of their APRs, and stressed the importance of continued efforts to prevent and detect any occurrence of the disease: “We must remain vigilant as the risk of polio has not disappeared – our challenge is to hunt for viruses, not just cases.”

Containment: the next big challenge

Throughout the Region, efforts are underway to comply with WHO recommendations on containment of all polioviruses currently held in laboratories or vaccine manufacturing facilities. As laid out in a global action plan to minimize risk following global eradication (called GAPIII), countries are expected to either destroy potentially infectious poliovirus materials or ensure they are securely stored in a WHO-certified poliovirus essential facility (PEF).

More countries in the European Region are planning to establish 1 or more PEFs than in any other of the 6 WHO regions. The RCC recommended that countries intending to choose this option be fully aware of the strict requirements as well as long-term commitment and responsibility that a PEF entails. These requirements include substantial levels of biosafety, biosecurity and population immunity.

European Member States demonstrated their will to support global poliovirus containment by endorsing the World Health Assembly resolution on this topic in May 2018.

The full conclusions and recommendations of the RCC’s 32nd meeting will be available in a forthcoming meeting report.