Protecting children from polio during war time
Increasing numbers of parents in Ukraine are vaccinating their children to protect them from dangerous diseases
The world has made tremendous progress against polio in the past three decades, vaccinating over 2.5 billion children and reducing cases by 99 percent. But this progress is fragile, and we cannot afford to lose focus. Millions of children are still missing out on routine vaccinations because of pandemic disruptions, conflict, climate disasters and displacement.
Polio is a highly contagious disease that poses a serious threat to the nervous system and can potentially lead to paralysis or death. Medicines to treat polio do not exist. The disease, however, can effectively be prevented: six doses of vaccine given in line with the childhood vaccination schedule can provide lifelong protection.
The two types of vaccines used for protection against poliovirus are inactivated poliomyelitis vaccine (IPV) administered by injection, and oral polio vaccine (OPV) given as liquid drops via the mouth. The first two vaccinations are given with the IPV vaccine, and the remaining with OPV vaccine.
UNICEF helps vaccinate over 400 million children globally against polio every year, to eradicate polio worldwide. In Ukraine, UNICEF works to secure uninterrupted availability of life-saving vaccines for children and adults and to maintain high routine immunization coverage. As the war and subsequent displacement continues, gaps in immunization coverage put children’s health at risk. UNICEF continues to provide access to catch-up vaccination for those children who have missed their scheduled vaccines.
To go the last mile in polio eradication, UNICEF implements programmes beyond the ‘two drops.’ Efforts are focused on strengthening health systems and understanding behavioural and social drivers to public health. Not only are these crucial investments to save lives but they are an integral tool in securing our shared global health security.
On the ground
Six-year-old Mykhailyk’s parents bring him for two comprehensive vaccinations – a booster dose of diphtheria, tetanus and polio, and MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella). It takes just a few minutes for the doctor to examine him, and then seconds for the vaccination itself.
Yuliia Dovjanych, Head Doctor at the ‘Dbayu’ medical centre (which means "taking care" in Ukrainian), has noticed increased requests for children's vaccination. According to Dovjanych, more and more parents are understanding that vaccination is a necessary part of protecting children and their communities.
"Infectious diseases do not disappear during the war,” she says. “The fight against them is our ‘medical front’ where we must remain resilient. Therefore, we must continue to get vaccinated, take care of our health and the health of our children!”
She adds that if a vaccination is missed for any reason, everyone can and should catch up with the schedule, even during wartime.
Maksym, a father of two, visits a Kyiv clinic to get his seven-month-old son Oleksandr vaccinated. After being examined by a paediatrician, the baby receives a DPT (diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus) and a polio vaccine.
“I am very positive about vaccination,” says the boy's father, “I am sure that war is no reason to neglect children's health.”
He continues, “even at a time like this, when there is an ongoing war, children’s health is of paramount importance. Last year, even when we were leaving the Kyiv region, we still went to a hospital in another region and had our children vaccinated.”
In 2022, to support immunisation in Ukraine, UNICEF procured more than 2 million doses of vaccines. These include the inactivated polio vaccine, oral polio vaccine, vaccines for the prevention of hepatitis B, tetanus-diphtheria, diphtheria-tetanus, measles-mumps-rubella, BCG vaccine for the prevention of tuberculosis, pentavalent vaccine and rabies vaccine.
So far in 2023, more than 650,000 doses of the polio vaccine and 657,000 doses of the combined MMR vaccine have already been delivered to Ukraine.
In Ukraine, UNICEF has also strengthened the cold chain at all levels from national and regional stores to vaccination points:
- UNICEF, under the COVAX initiative, purchased 26 freezers to be installed at the national and regional levels to strengthen the immunization chain.
- Almost 5,200 vaccine refrigerators and freezers procured with the World Bank funds will support safe vaccine storage at vaccination points.
- To ensure vaccines are available, including in the most affected regions, UNICEF, with its own funds and USAID funds, procured 36 refrigerator vans for vaccine transportation from national to oblast and from oblast to vaccination points.
- In addition, vaccine carriers and cold boxes for vaccine storage and transportation for over 2,500 vaccination points and 800 mobile teams were distributed across Ukraine.
UNICEF has delivered almost 6.2 million syringes in 2023 to make sure that vaccination continues.
Even in the most complex conflict settings, UNICEF and partners know what to do to prevent catastrophic disease outbreak. Together we are committed to make polio history.