LONDON – Health officials in Burundi have declared an outbreak of vaccine-related polio, the first time the paralytic disease has been detected in the east African country in more than three decades.
An unvaccinated four-year-old child in the west of the country and two other children who were the child’s contacts have been diagnosed with polio, authorities in Burundi confirmed in a statement on Friday. Officials also found traces of the virus in sewage samples, confirming the spread of polio.
The virus that was making the children sick was found to be a mutated strain of polio originally derived from an oral vaccine.
The Burundian government has declared the polio outbreak a national health emergency and plans to launch a vaccination campaign within weeks, aiming to protect all children up to the age of seven.
“We support national efforts to expand polio immunization to ensure no child is overlooked and exposed to the debilitating effects of polio,” said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Director for Africa.
The epidemic is another setback for the global polio eradication effort led by the World Health Organization and its partners, which first began in 1988 and originally aimed to eradicate the disease in a dozen years.
Polio is a highly contagious, primarily waterborne disease that typically affects children under the age of five. There is no treatment. Although the oral vaccine used in the global effort to eradicate the disease is highly effective, four doses are required.
The oral vaccine can also cause polio in about two to four children for every 2 million doses. Also, in extremely rare cases, the weakened virus can sometimes mutate into a more dangerous form and trigger outbreaks, particularly in places with poor sanitation and low immunization levels.
In recent years, oral polio vaccine has caused far more cases of polio than wild poliovirus. Last year, cases linked to the oral vaccine surfaced for the first time in years in wealthy countries like the UK, Israel and the US.
Officials last year began rolling out a new oral polio vaccine they hoped would be less likely to mutate into a version capable of triggering new outbreaks. But the epidemic in Burundi – in addition to six cases in Congo – was found to have been triggered by the new oral vaccine.
More than 400 cases of polio were linked to the oral vaccine across Africa last year, including Congo, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Zambia.
The disease also remains stubbornly entrenched in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where transmission has never stopped.
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