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April 22, 2010

WHO Investigates Polio Outbreak in Tajikistan

by Lisa Schlein

The World Health Organization says it is sending technical experts to Tajikistan to investigate an outbreak of seven cases of polio in the country.  It says this is the first importation of polio in the European region since Europe was certified as polio-free in 2002.

Three technical experts from WHO already have left for Tajikistan.  And, the organization says three more experts are expected to arrive in that central Asian country on Sunday.

WHO Spokeswoman for the Polio Eradication Initiative, Sona Bari, agrees this is a setback for WHO's polio eradication campaign.  She says it is a sober reminder of the need to vaccinate children against this crippling disease.

She says the technical experts will carry out a detailed investigation of the seven cases of polio to determine the country from where the virus was imported and what actions need to be taken to prevent its further spread.

"Planning is already going on for three large-scale vaccination campaigns," Bari said.  "There are about 864,000 children under the age of five that we will reach with this vaccine.  And, surrounding countries, particularly Uzbekistan and Kyrgyztan are being asked to step up their surveillance for acute flaccid paralysis, which is a sign of polio and to look into their immunization rates to make sure that children are adequately protected in those surrounding areas."  

Bari says these immunization campaigns are expensive.  She says Rotary International has given $500,000.  But, additional funding will be needed to buy the vaccines and carry out the campaigns.

She says the polio crisis comes at a time when WHO and other U.N. agencies are struggling to contain a big outbreak in Africa.

"We had a first round to deal with this, this year on the sixth of March, a second smaller round on the 26th of March.  And, now, they are starting this Saturday, about 78 million children across central and west Africa to shut down that outbreak," Bari said.  "Again, emphasizing the importance of stopping polio in the few remaining endemic countries, so that it cannot be imported out to areas where children are not adequately immunized." 

Bari says Tajikistan is close to two polio endemic countries - Afghanistan and Pakistan.  But, she says it is premature to identify one of these countries as the source of the virus.  She says until the genetic sequencing of the virus is completed, it will not be possible to know from where the importation came.