European Region's 20-year polio-free period 'celebratory moment' but 'fragile legacy': WHO

Over last year, poliovirus has hit Israel, Ukraine, UK, says WHO Europe regional chief.

European Region's 20-year polio-free period 'celebratory moment' but 'fragile legacy': WHO

The World Health Organization (WHO) Europe chief said Monday that despite 20 years of keeping the European Region free from indigenous wild polio, the poliovirus has hit Israel, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom over the past year.

On World Polio Day, Dr. Hans Kluge, the director of the WHO's 53-member regional group, said in a news conference that reaching the 20-year polio-free period is a "celebratory moment but a fragile legacy."

"Over this past year, we have been confronted with poliovirus in Israel, Ukraine, and the UK, where the circulation of vaccine-derived polioviruses has been confirmed," said the WHO regional head.

He said: "Back in 1980, there were almost 2,700 confirmed cases of polio in the 53 countries of the European Region, and 18 years later, the Region's last case of indigenous wild polio was reported in Türkiye."

Kluge cautioned that the progress and the European Region's polio-free status remain vulnerable.

"Vaccine-derived poliovirus refers to a strain of the virus that has mutated from a weakened strain originally contained in the oral polio vaccine."

Kluge said such vaccine-derived poliovirus could spread in pockets of under-immunized persons, so making it paramount to ensure high vaccination coverage in all population groups.

He said the links between the recent vaccine-derived virus strains in the European Region and New York, "as well as the recently closed polio outbreak in Tajikistan caused by virus circulating in Afghanistan and Pakistan," show that until polio is eradicated, "every country will remain at risk of polio re-infection."

The polio outbreak response in Tajikistan demonstrated what a strong commitment by the government toward the health of its population could achieve.

Kluge said he will visit Tajikistan next week as the government moves forward to provide the benefits of the pneumococcal vaccine to children.

With the prospect of a polio-free world incredibly close, Kluge called on health authorities and partners across Europe and Central Asia to keep up decades of investment and hard work that have brought the world close to the finish line in eradicating polio.

"Leaving the racetrack now would be a tragedy for all of us and future generations," said Kluge.

Since its inception in 1988, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative has also played an immense role in attaining a polio-free Africa in 2020, according to the WHO.