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October 30, 2013

No Polio in South Sudan -- Officials

by Andrew Green

South Sudan and World Health Organization (WHO) officials have reassured locals and the international community that South Sudan is polio-free, after they found that three reported cases of the crippling disease were misdiagnoses.

"We were given a false alarm last month when an error occurred in a reference lab in Nairobi, due to a human error," South Sudanese Health Minister Riek Gai Kok said after he was notified late last week by the WHO that two patients in Northern Bahr el Ghazal and one in Eastern Equatoria who were diagnosed with the disease, didn't actually have it.

"There was a specimen, which was sent from here for analysis in Nairobi. It got contaminated unintentionally with a specimen which was sent from Somalia. So the result was false," he said.

Somalia, where violence and lawlessness have prevented medical personnel from vaccinating hundreds of thousands of children over the past few years, is the epicenter of a polio outbreak in the Horn of Africa. 

Gai said the mistaken diagnoses in South Sudan were discovered after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) took the unusual step of doing a second round of tests on the South Sudan samples, seeking to confirm the outbreak. 

WHO officials confirmed that the original diagnoses were flawed.

South Sudan has been polio-free for the last four years. Health officials declared a national emergency after the positive test results were made public and llaunched emergency vaccination campaigns in Northern Bahr el Ghazal and Eastern Equatoria.

Gai says there are still concerns that an ongoing polio outbreak in Somalia could enter South Sudan. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative, a public-private partnership led by the WHO, has said the Somalia outbreak has already spread to Ethiopia and Kenya.