After an outbreak of more than 413 cases of polio in Tajikistan, 1,000 teams of doctors and nurses working under a USAID grant and the Tajikistan Ministry of Health have stopped the spread of the disease nearly three months after the first cases were registered.
Largely wiped out around the world since the discovery of the polio vaccine in the 1950s, the virus remains in a few remote regions of the world. International health officials, donors such as USAID, and local governments move swiftly once outbreaks are identified—including in Tajikistan. By June 21, new infections had stopped.
In April, the World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed seven children in Tajikistan had contracted polio. Over the next three months, 413 cases were confirmed, signaling the largest polio outbreak in the world since 2004 and outstripping traditional polio hotspots like India and Nigeria. It was the first time such an outbreak had occurred in the Central Asian region since 2002. And, by mid-July, WHO reported nearly 700 cases of acute flaccid paralysis, a type of paralysis that is often caused by polio, in Tajikistan. Emerging cases of the paralysis usually signal the beginning of a polio outbreak.
A mark is placed on a child’s hand to show that he has received a round of polio vaccine.
Tajikistan was certified as polio free in 2002 a result of a vigorous effort over several years by many donors, including USAID. Since then, country health officials conducted annual immunizations to ensure that the country remained polio free.
“Certainly, there were children who missed the opportunity to be vaccinated due to migration from Tajikistan and inside of the country,” said Tajik Deputy Health Minister Aazam Mirzoyev during a press interview in May. “Some of them have not been vaccinated year after year. They have a role in the outbreak, because they do not have a shield against the disease.”
USAID has pledged $3 million for renewed efforts with WHO, UNICEF, regional ministries of health, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other organizations to carry out vaccination campaigns, surveillance, and community mobilization throughout Central Asia.
The Ministry of Health mobilized doctors and nurses to carry out vaccinations throughout the country. In addition, officials kicked off a massive communications campaign to inform the public about polio immunization.
In addition to vaccinations, millions of leaflets, posters, and banners in Tajik, Uzbek, Russian, and Dari were distributed in health centers, schools, kindergartens, markets, and mosques. Doctors and nurses visited homes in rural areas, encouraging parents and caregivers to ensure that all children are vaccinated in every round to build up immunity. “We are thankful to our international partners for their support of the polio immunization drive in Tajikistan,” Dr. Mirzoyev said.
Polio is a highly infectious viral disease that invades the nervous system. It can cause paralysis— one in 200 cases leads to irreversible paralysis, usually in the legs—and even death. The disease mainly affects children under age 5. The only way to prevent polio is through vaccination.
As of June 21, the immunization campaign was drawing to a close, and no new polio cases had been reported. Both the health specialists and the donor community are hopeful the outbreak has died out.
“Now that the outbreak has been stopped, it is important that we work together with the Ministry of Health of Tajikistan to strengthen the national health system, disease surveillance, and sanitation systems so that polio does not reemerge again,” said Bryn Sakagawa, deputy director of the Health and Education Office at USAID’s Central Asia regional office.