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UN: Nearly 2M Ukraine Children at Risk of Polio

FILE - A boy reacts after receiving a vaccine from a nurse at Children's Hospital No. 1 in Kyiv, Ukraine.
FILE - A boy reacts after receiving a vaccine from a nurse at Children's Hospital No. 1 in Kyiv, Ukraine.

The World Health Organization and United Nations Children's Fund are urging the government in Ukraine to give the immediate go-ahead for a life-saving nationwide polio immunization campaign. The U.N. agencies warn the government's failure to back the campaign is putting the lives of nearly 2 million children at risk.

Six weeks after a polio outbreak and despite repeated requests by aid agencies, Ukrainian authorities still have not given permission for a nationwide immunization campaign to begin.

Polio Factbox

Polio Factbox

  • Polio is a highly infectious disease and mainly affects children under the age of 5.
  • When polio is contracted, it invades the nervous system and within hours can cause total paralysis.
  • One out of 200 infections leads to irreversible paralysis and of those, 5-10 percent die when muscles associated with breathing become paralyzed.
  • There is no cure; prevention is the only method of controlling the disease.
  • Since the Global Polio Eradication Initiative was formed in 1988, cases have decreased by more than 99 percent.
  • Three countries remain polio-endemic - Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan - down from more than 125 countries in 1988.

Source: WHO

WHO communications officer Oliver Rosenbauer told VOA the political indecision could cost the lives of many children.

"Time is absolutely of the essence. The longer this virus is allowed to circulate, the higher the risk that you are going to see more and more children paralyzed by this disease…You need to run an immunization response as quickly as possible," Rosenbauer said.

Two children - aged 10 months and four years - were confirmed to have polio on September 1 in southwest Ukraine. Neither child had been immunized against it. This is the first polio outbreak to hit the country in 19 years.

The WHO says just one case constitutes an outbreak and must be dealt with rapidly. Otherwise, it says, the crippling disease could spread like wildfire.

Rosenbauer said the risk of the international spread of polio cannot be ruled out; but, he added that since there is almost universal immunization coverage of children in other European countries, the risk is relatively low.

"I think what we are much more concerned about is the risk of the spread within Ukraine because that is where we know we have vaccination coverage gaps. We talked about 50 percent of children not being protected against the virus. This virus is not going to stay in the area where we know it is unless we respond to it," Rosenbauer said.

The WHO and UNICEF say the outbreak can be rapidly stopped through nationwide immunization of children with three rounds of oral polio vaccine. They say all the preparations and vaccines are in place to immunize 1.8 million children under 5.

The only thing not yet in place, they say, is the green light to begin the immunizations.