Certification commission helps Europe keep up its guard against polio

Copenhagen, 30 June 2010

The WHO Regional Office for Europe held the 23rd Meeting of the European Regional Commission for the Certification of Poliomyelitis Eradication in Copenhagen, Denmark on 28–29 June 2010. An independent panel of international public health experts, the Commission is responsible for monitoring the polio-free status of the WHO European Region.

During its annual meeting, the Commission is briefed on global and regional progress towards poliomyelitis (polio) eradication, and reviews annual reports from European Member States on their work in sustaining the Region’s polio-free status. This task includes maintaining immunization coverage, planning national responses to poliovirus importation and conducting surveillance for acute flaccid paralysis (AFP).

As the Global Polio Eradication Initiative enters its twenty-third year, the challenge is sustaining the momentum that has been achieved and keeping up Europe’s guard against the resurgence of polio and other vaccine-preventable diseases.

Twelve years after the last indigenous case was reported, the European Region is threatened by a resurgence of wild poliovirus. At its Meeting, the Commission assessed the epidemiological situation and the control measures implemented by Tajikistan to interrupt the transmission of imported wild poliovirus type 1 in 2010.

“This first importation of polio, since the Region was certified as polio free, reminds us how fragile progress is,” said Ms Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe, as she opened the Meeting. “The only way to protect our population, our children, is to reach and sustain high coverage with polio vaccines and to keep surveillance systems functioning well. I would especially like to highlight the need to reach vulnerable populations to reduce any gaps in immunity.”

On 23 April 2010, the WHO Regional Reference Laboratory in Moscow confirmed wild poliovirus type 1 as the cause of the polio outbreak in Tajikistan. As of 28 June, Tajikistan had reported 334 laboratory-confirmed cases with wild poliovirus type 1, including 15 deaths (4.49%).

“The Commission examines data from countries and, of course, we are dependent on what countries report to us,” said the Chairperson, Professor David Salisbury, Director of Immunization at the Department of Health, United Kingdom. “Last year we said that we were concerned about the situation in five countries in the Region. It is tragic that, despite our alert, there has been this outbreak. We sincerely hope that, this year, countries will take serious note of any programmatic shortcoming that we may identify.”

In response to the outbreak, Tajikistan has conducted four rounds of national immunization days (NIDs): two for children aged under 6 years and two for children and adolescents aged under 15. Neighbouring Uzbekistan has conducted two rounds of NIDs, and will begin another on 5 July. Coverage has been extremely high in both countries. Other countries in the subregion plan to conduct supplementary immunization activities in the coming months. The WHO Regional Office for Europe continues to update Member States and partners through letters to ministers, chief medical officers and partners; information on its web site; and situation reports covering risk assessment, the epidemiological situation and response actions.

This is a sobering moment, as the European Region faces importation of wild poliovirus. As the Meeting closed on 29 June, Commission members stressed the need for Member States to achieve the highest immunization coverage, and to ensure that high-quality surveillance systems are in place, so that they can rapidly detect poliovirus transmission and respond with control measures to stop it.

The WHO Regional Office for Europe will soon issue a full report on the Meeting.

With questions about polio in the European Region, contact:

Dr Rebecca Martin
Vaccine-preventable diseases and immunization team
WHO Regional Office for Europe
Tel.: +45 39 17 12 16
E-mail: rma@euro.who.int

For further information and interview requests, contact:

Mr Robb Butler
Vaccine-preventable diseases and immunization team
WHO Regional Office for Europe
Tel.: +45 3917 15 52
Mobile: + 45 21 31 61 28
E-mail: rbu@euro.who.int