Polio in Ukraine: nationwide vaccination campaign needs to start straight away – The Guardian

Next week a nationwide polio vaccination campaign should start in Ukraine. I say should because we’ve been here before. The campaign should have actually started weeks ago.

Ukraine’s ministry of health and the World Health Organisation (WHO) confirmed two cases of circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus on 1st September. Both children, aged 10 months and 4 years, were not vaccinated against the disease. They live in Zakarpatska province in south-west Ukraine, close to the country’s borders with Romania, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia.

Internationally agreed guidelines state that a response, using an oral polio vaccine (OPV), needs to start within 14 days, given that one polio case is considered an outbreak.

It’s now more than six weeks since the confirmation and not one child has been protected in response. In Ukraine, 1.8 million children are at risk of paralysis or death because they are not fully protected against polio. The virus is very good at detecting the weakest in society, particularly young children.

Over time, a number of factors have led to the low levels of children immunised against polio and other vaccine-preventable diseases in the country. Local and vocal anti-vaccine groups, insufficient vaccine supply and the conflict in eastern Ukraine all complicate the situation. However, a recent Unicef survey showed that 70% of Ukrainian mothers are aware of the benefits of vaccination to protect their children. Now is the time to give these mothers the opportunity to do just that.

The good news is that it looks like the campaign is finally set to go. The ministry of health is mobilising its resources and by this time next week children, form newborns to six-year-olds, should be visiting clinics across the country to receive their first two drops of OPV. At least three rounds are necessary to ensure that the disease is stopped in its tracks.

Unicef and the WHO are supporting efforts as much as we can. Thanks to generous funding from the government of Canada, Unicef procured 3.7m doses of OPV. This procurement is in the country and will cover the first round, but more support is needed to provide all the necessary vaccines for the additional two rounds. Health workers are being trained and information is being distributed across the country on where to go, and on how the vaccine is administered.

With the conflict in the east, amid tough economic times, Ukraine’s children need all the protection they can get. It’s critical to make sure that this campaign doesn’t just happen but that it’s effective and reaches every child possible across the country. Only then can we ensure that this debilitating disease is contained and the health and wellbeing of Ukraine’s children, and those further afield, is protected for the benefit of all.

Giovanna Barberis is Unicef’s representative in Ukraine. Follow @GiovannaUNICEF on Twitter.

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