Ukraine is at risk of a polio outbreak as the war ravaged nation has run out of vaccine stockpiles for the disease, as well as for other infections, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned.
“Ukraine does not have any vaccine in their storage. We are all worried about a polio outbreak. Before the crisis, they had lower coverage of vaccines (immunization rates), and now, they don‘t have any vaccines,” said Dorit Nitzan, who heads the WHO’s country office in Ukraine.
Nitzan, a trained paediatrician, said she was concerned about a possible outbreak, and noted that Ukraine had not had any cases of polio for 30 years.
Immunisation rates for children under five years of age have been going down in recent years, and at present sits at around 50%.
Public concerns about vaccine safety go back to 2008 and are related to the death of an adolescent boy, which some groups associated with the measles and rubella vaccine. However, the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) has noted that medical experts concluded that his death was not caused by vaccination.
The country also had no vaccine stockpiles for measles, tetanus, diphtheria, rubella, pertussis and mumps.
Unicef, the lead UN agency for vaccines, estimates that 1.5 million children under five years of age are not fully vaccinated against polio.
“Given the large population displacement and the lowest vaccination rates in Europe, Ukraine is at high risk of communicable disease outbreaks, especially against children,” Nitzan said.
According to Nitzan, the government was unable to procure the vaccines alone because of a combination of factors, including procurement problems and no funds, and had asked the WHO and Unicef to procure cheaper vaccines.
“The government tender process for procurement of vaccines for 2014 in Ukraine has failed,” said Unicef. It noted that regional stocks of vaccines have been exhausted, and the gap is to stretch until the end of the year.
Unicef is trying, at the request of the government, to urgently provide US$700,000 worth of polio vaccines.
In August, the WHO appealed for US$14m to scale up operations in Ukraine, including for vaccines, but to date, has received only US$40,000, and relief agencies such as the European Union’s ECHO have yet to respond, according to Nitzan.
Nitzan said supplies of vaccines were in the past provided by Russia.
The WHO said the crisis in eastern Ukraine “is creating a looming health emergency” and noted that more than 2,600 people have been killed and around 7,000 injured, and is preparing to provide essential medical supplies to an estimated 340,000 people.