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In Tajikistan, immunization campaign battles new polio outbreak

© UNICEF Tajikistan/2010
A young boy receives drops of oral polio vaccine during a country-wide immunization campaign in Tajikistan.

DUSHANBE, Tajikistan, 6 May 2010 – A three-round immunization drive began last week in Tajikistan, in response to a polio outbreak that is threatening children across the country.

In the coming month, health workers and volunteers will immunize more than a million Tajik children under the age of six. UNICEF, the World Health Organization (WHO) and other partners in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative are supporting the Ministry of Health as it rolls out the campaign.

Sudden outbreak

The outbreak of polio is Tajikistan’s first in over a decade. In April, an unusually high number of cases of acute flaccid paralysis – a naturally occurring condition that is sometimes caused by polio infection – were reported in the country. As of 4 May, 32 of those cases had been confirmed as polio. Most occurred along Tajikistan’s south-western borders with Afghanistan and Uzbekistan.

© UNICEF Tajikistan/2010
Holding their children, Tajik mothers register for polio vaccines at a local hospital. Across Tajikistan, parents and health workers are battling the country's first outbreak of polio in more than a decade.

Polio is highly infectious, and even one un-immunized child puts every child at risk. Because the virus transmits rapidly and travels long distances, UNICEF and its partners are working to prevent the outbreak from spreading to other Tajik children or even into neighbouring countries.

While Tajikistan’s polio vaccination coverage rate was as high as 87 per cent in 2008, the scale of the recent outbreak suggests that more work remains to be done.

"The only way to eradicate polio is immunization,” said Minister of Health Dr. Nusratullo Faizulloevich Salimov.

Calling for ‘full support’

The current campaign aims to vaccinate about 1.1 million children with oral polio vaccine. It is the first in a series of three immunization rounds that will sweep Tajikistan in the next month in an effort to stem the outbreak.

© UNICEF Tajikistan/2010
A girl receives oral polio vaccine as part of Tajikistan's country-wide immunization campaign.

Overall, the country has received nearly 4 million doses of the vaccine from WHO and other international partners.

“I would like to commend the Ministry of Health of Tajikistan for [its] transparent and proactive action,” said WHO Regional Director for Europe Zsuzsanna Jakab. “With no cure for polio, we are calling for the full support of all sectors of society to ensure that every child under six years of age receives the polio vaccine … until the country is polio-free again.”

UNICEF Tajikistan Chief of Health and Nutrition Ayadil Saparbekov added that while all Tajik parents and caregivers are responsible for ensuring that their children are immunized, health workers have a large role to play. “Vaccination teams must pay special attention to vulnerable groups of children who often miss routine immunization – children living in remote, isolated and under-served communities across the country,” he said.

Worldwide impact

The oral polio vaccine is administered as a series of liquid drops. The vaccines are procured from manufacturers pre-qualified by WHO, which sets international standards for their quality. Vaccines purchased from these manufacturers are currently in use around the world.

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative, which leads action against polio worldwide, is spearheaded by national governments, UNICEF, WHO, Rotary International and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Global polio eradication efforts have reduced the number of polio cases by more than 99 per cent, from 350,000 cases in 1988 to fewer than 2,000 in 2006. 

Four countries – Nigeria, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan – remain polio-endemic. However, polio outbreaks continue in previously polio-free countries such as Tajikistan, and particularly where there are pockets of children who have not been immunized. As long as polio exists anywhere in the world, all children remain at risk.



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