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WHO South-East Asia Region polio-free, accelerated efforts needed in view of increased risks: experts

The WHO South-East Asia Region sustained its polio-free status despite disruptions caused by COVID-19 pandemic but needs to scale-up measures in view of the persisting and increased risks of polio globally.

“Countries have been making efforts, but gaps persist, specially at sub-national level. We need to scale-up surveillance and immunization coverage and update our polio outbreak response capacities to respond rapidly and timely in the event of a polio outbreak,” said Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, Regional Director WHO South-East Asia as the South-East Asia Regional Certification Commission for Polio Eradication met here to review the situation in the Region.

The chairs of national certification committees and global certification commission; representatives of donor and partner agencies and WHO participated in the two-day meeting earlier this week.

The Commission concluded that the Region has not had any case of wild polio virus or circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus (cVDPV). However, risks persist due to continued circulation of wild poliovirus type 1 in endemic countries bordering the Region, as well as due to the cVDPVs being reported from several countries of other Regions.

“The situation requires constant monitoring until global polio eradication is achieved,” the Commission recommended.

The Regional Director said globally polio remains a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. Earlier this month, New York declared a state of emergency following the detection of poliovirus in wastewater samples.  In recent months cases of wild poliovirus type 1 have been reported in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Malawi and Mozambique.

In June, the Thirty-second Polio IHR Emergency Committee assessed the risk of international spread of cVDPV2 or circulating vaccine derived poliovirus type 2, as high, in view of COVID-19 outbreak impacting routine immunizations services in many countries. cVDPVs are a risk in areas with low immunization coverage.

“Today, coverage in the Region of the bivalent oral polio vaccine and inactivated polio vaccine has for the most part stabilized or improved since 2020; however, the trajectory in several countries continues to be cause for concern,” Dr Khetrapal Singh said.

Though the Region was able to maintain global surveillance standards throughout the COVID-19 response, there are variations at national and sub-national levels that need to be addressed, she said.

Emphasizing on sustaining adequate resources amid immense fiscal stress, Dr Khetrapal Singh said, enabling polio networks in the Region to strengthen immunization systems and carry out other public health functions will help polio-priority countries maintain core capacities and infrastructure until global polio eradication is achieved.

“The last year two and a half years – almost three – have not been easy, but the Region’s continued polio-free status is a testament to the dedication and commitment of polio programme workforce, many of whom have significantly contributed to the COVID-19 response, and the steadfast resolve of donors and partners,” the Regional Director said.

At the two-day meeting on 21 and 22 September, updates on polio situation were also shared from WHO Africa Region, WHO Eastern Mediterranean Region, WHO European Region and WHO Western Pacific Region.

Source: WHO