Polio threat: Health Ministry Confirms that Afghan refugees are potential Carriers of the Virus

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Uganda received Polio Vaccines in April 2021 some of which will be used to prevent importation of Polio virus in the country; Courtesy Photo

Ministry of Health officials have said Afghan refugees coming into Uganda are potential carriers of Wild Poliovirus, and serious measures are being taken to prevent the importation of the virus into the country.

The officials stated that while Wild Polio is being eliminated from country to country and Uganda was declared Wild Polio free in 2006, the virus is endemic in Afghanistan and Pakistan and continues to exist in some parts of the world. Officials noted that “serious measures” must be taken as part of the essential service package for receiving refugees into Uganda.

The revelation comes as the Ministry of Health prepares to conduct a nationwide Polio immunization campaign in October and December 2021 following a resurgence of polio outbreak in Uganda during which health-workers will visit house-to­ house and vaccinate all children aged 5 years or below against Polio.

In July this year, laboratory tests conducted using environmental samples in Kampala, came out positive of the polio virus. Tests on samples collected from Bugolobi and Lubijji Sewage treatment sites were analyzed at Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI) and confirmed a circulating Vaccine Derived Polio Virus type 2 (cVDPV2).

“Because the Wild Polio virus is still circulating in Afghanistan, in it’s effort to receive refugees from Afghanistan, Uganda is including vaccination against Polio Type I and II on the package for all the refugees coming in the country regardless of age. This is how we take seriously this issue” Programs Manager, National Expanded Program on Immunization (MOH) Dr Driwale said.

Africa was declared free of Wild Poliovirus in 2020 but the virus is still very active in Afghanistan and Pakistan and officials said Dr Driwale says, the technical wing at the Health Ministry have put forward a proposal to have this issue considered as priority.

In the past 12 months, over 19 African countries have declared cVDPV2 outbreaks, including three countries bordering Uganda: The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), South Sudan, and Kenya. A total of 21 countries are affected by the ongoing Polio Type 2 cVDPV2 outbreak.

The resurgence of Polio in Uganda may be attributed to the reduced routine immunization and Polio immunization rates in the country during the COVID-19 pandemic. Low immunization rates pose a major risk to other forms of polio virus outbreaks globally.

Also, incessant cross-border movements among neighboring countries and the countries from the Horn of Africa region currently affected by cVDPV2 outbreaks pose a risk of further Polio-importations to the country.

According to the Ministry of Health, the resurging strain -Circulating Vaccine Derived Poliovirus (cVDPV), affects children in the communities with low immunity levels.

In response to the Polio outbreak, Dr Driwale said the Ministry of Health has also heightened surveillance of Polio in the country by intensifying search for Polio cases in all health facilities by reporting and investigation of all children under fifteen years with sudden onset of paralysis or weakness in the arms or legs and expansion of environmental surveillance.

Dr Driwale warned that the discovery of polio in Kampala doesn’t mean that the risk of infection is limited to City dwellers but also puts multitudes of Ugandans at risk since Kampala is Uganda’s business hub where many people converge. He said the population living upcountry and even beyond borders are at risk of Polio infection.

Polio is a viral disease that is transmitted from person to person, mainly through a faecal-oral route or, less frequently, through contaminated water or food, and multiplies inside the intestines. Polio can strike at any age, but affects mainly children under three (over 50% of all cases).

Data from the MOH show that over the last 5 years, a total of over 2 million children Uganda missed immunization and are at a higher risk of polio infection. Under the MOH response program, officials will screen and provide IPV dose (in October) to all children under 5 years without card verified record of previous vaccination and fast track introduction of the second dose in November this year. Other activities include mass sensitization through media and other channels.

The first round of immunization targets about 8.6 million children with the largest number of un-immunized children projected to be in Kampala. Specific dates will be announced by MOH.

MOH stated that all health workers participating in the immunization campaign will wear masks and strictly observe the COVID-19 SOPs to ensure children are safely vaccinated.

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