Amidst the war, Ukraine’s polio outbreak is declared successfully closed
Unprecedented collaboration amongst Ukraine’s Ministry of Health, WHO, UNICEF, USCDC and Rotary leads to successful Polio outbreak containment in Ukraine despite the ongoing war.
The World Health Organization (WHO) Europe has declared an outbreak of poliovirus in Ukraine, detected in October 2021, officially closed. The comprehensive outbreak response initiated by the Ministry of Health of Ukraine in December 2021 has successfully stopped transmission of the virus and prevented its spread to other countries.
In December 2021, Ukraine's Ministry of Health approved an action plan for an accelerated immunization catch-up campaign for children aged 6 months to 6 years, who had not received the required doses through routine immunization. “The Ministry of Health of Ukraine declared importation of this poliovirus a local public health emergency and acted swiftly since its detection in close coordination with the global public health community,” said Dr Viktor Liashko, Minister of Health of Ukraine.
Closure of the outbreak is based on the recommendations of a polio outbreak response assessment (OBRA) conducted by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) partners, including WHO and UNICEF, in May this year, in addition to the evidence provided by Ukraine in support of the ongoing surveillance, immunization, and communication efforts since May, and a comprehensive review of poliovirus surveillance and vaccination performance in the countries hosting most of the Ukrainian refugee population.
"Halting the spread of poliovirus amidst an ongoing war is an extraordinary achievement, vividly illustrating the commitment of Ukrainian Authorities to the welfare of the population,” said Dr. Jarno Habicht, WHO Representative in Ukraine. “WHO, UNICEF and other GPEI partners have been on the ground from day one supporting Ukraine’s health authorities, medical and public health professionals, laboratory staff and communities to keep this virus from spreading. The excellent collaboration and perseverance of the local and international teams in the most difficult of circumstances helped save lives of Ukrainian children and protect their future from this paralyzing disease.”
Detection of poliovirus in Ukraine in October 2021 triggered the creation of a response working group with technical support from the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) and WHO specialists, and an immediate epidemiological investigation including contact tracing and environmental sampling at the locations where the virus had been initially detected.
“Since Ukraine’s polio outbreak began in 2021, UNICEF has been delivering polio vaccine doses for children and providing community messaging on the need to use these vaccines,” says Veera Mendonca, Deputy Representative of UNICEF Ukraine. “In 2023 alone, UNICEF delivered 890,000 doses of bivalent oral polio vaccine and inactivated polio vaccine with support from the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI). We are extremely happy to see that this country-wide catch-up campaign, where UNICEF has teamed up with partners, has brought such excellent results. It’s a significant achievement, especially given the current war and with so many people displaced, that we have together managed to mitigate this highly contagious disease.”
The outbreak response faced multiple challenges since the escalation of the war in Ukraine in February 2022. The ongoing war decreased pace and scope of a robust catch-up vaccination campaign, caused massive population displacement, led to destruction of healthcare infrastructure and disrupted logistical routes for medical product deliveries. Amidst the challenges, GPEI partners continued providing technical and operational support including capacity building, tailored to the context, to strengthen routine immunization services, disease surveillance, communication and transportation of samples to the reference laboratories abroad.
“The success of stopping a polio outbreak amidst the challenges created by the ongoing conflict is commendable, and we applaud the Ukraine public health community. CDC, with other partners, continues support to countries with polio outbreaks – until we achieve global polio eradication,” said Dr. Ezra Barzilay, Director of Centers for Disease Control Office in Ukraine.
The outbreak closure is consistent with recommendations from a comprehensive outbreak assessment conducted by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) partners and the European Regional Commission for the Certification of Poliomyelitis Eradication.
“The outbreak is now closed, but our work to prevent polio and other vaccine-preventable diseases in Ukraine continues. As long as polio remains a threat globally, Ukraine will remain vulnerable, and the Ministry of Health is committed to strengthen vaccine-preventable disease surveillance and work to expand routine immunization coverage throughout the country to protect every child,” Minister Liashko concluded.
UNICEF works in some of the world’s toughest places, to reach the world’s most disadvantaged children. Across 190 countries and territories, we work for every child, everywhere, to build a better world for everyone. For more information about UNICEF and its work for children, visit www.unicef.org