WHO: Polio outbreaks in London and Ukraine show 'children have been left behind'

The virus has been detected in several European countries in recent months

A health worker administers the live polio vaccine to a child during a vaccination campaign in Lahore. AFP
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Polio outbreaks in London, Israel and other areas which previously eradicated the virus are proof “children have been left behind,” said the World Health Organisation.

A concerted campaign must be waged to ensure the WHO’s 95 per cent vaccination target is reached, or the virus could gain a foothold in “underserved” populations.

The virus has been detected in several countries in Europe recent months, including the UK and Ukraine.

All the cases are vaccine-derived polio, rather than indigenous wild polio, but its detection means Europe’s status as polio-free remains “vulnerable,” said WHO Europe’s regional director, Dr Hans Kluge.

“Vaccine-derived polio virus refers to a strain of polio virus that has mutated from a weakened strain originally contained in the oral polio vaccine,” he said, at a WHO press briefing to mark World Polio Day on Monday.

“Such vaccine-derived polio virus can spread in pockets of under-immunised persons, thus making it paramount to ensure high vaccination coverage in all population groups.”

WHO’s regional immunisation adviser Dr Siddhartha data said it was critically important communities reached the 95 per cent vaccination target.

“I think the most important element is we need to understand the occurrence of the vaccine-derived polio or wild polio virus cases in any community, anywhere in the globe, clearly indicates one thing, we have left our children behind by not getting them vaccinated,” said Dr data.

“That is critically important.”

Dr data said if children have been “left behind” by failing to vaccinate them against polio, the virus is a good barometer to reveal who and where they are.

“The reasons could be multifactorial. The reasons could be context-specific,” he said.

“But I think it’s important that we understand that anywhere in the globe, if we have left people behind, the polio virus is a very good barometer to tell us who are they, either in New York, or in Israel, or the UK, or Ukraine, the underserved population groups, because of one reason or another, did not receive the recommended WHO target of 95 per cent coverage.”

The UK, which recorded its last case in 1984, was detected in London waste water in June 2022.

The government said there are “signs the virus is spreading in London and the number of children vaccinated in London is lower than it should be”.

It is offering children age 1 to 9 a dose of the polio vaccine.

Wild polio remains endemic in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The UAE Pakistan Vaccination Assistance Programme has administered almost 648 million doses of polio vaccine in Pakistan since 2014.

Both the late UAE President Sheikh Khalifa and President Sheikh Mohamed have been active in supporting the fight against polio. First as Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohamed has donated $250 million since 2014 to charities and humanitarian organisations organising polio eradication campaigns and vaccinating children.

The first Global Vaccine Summit was organised in Abu Dhabi 10 years ago under the patronage of Sheikh Mohamed and supported by Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary General at the time, and the billionaire Bill Gates.

The summit was attended by more than 300 world leaders, health and development experts, philanthropists and leading business figures.

In total $4 billion was promised to fund a plan to end polio in six years, with Mr Gates praising the UAE leader as “dynamic” and “risk-taking”.

Pakistan has so far recorded more than 20 cases in 2022 and Afghanistan two, although that figure may not be accurate following the Taliban takeover.

Updated: October 24, 2022, 1:28 PM