Polio outbreak: Health officials call for vigilance, vaccination

A scientist conducts tests in a laboratory at Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI) in December 2023. Health officials have called for increased vigilance and vaccination of children after tests confirmed an outbreak of polio in Mbale City. PHOTO/FILE/TONY ABET

What you need to know:

  • The poliovirus was discovered in samples taken from the sewage in Mbale City. 

Health officials have called for increased vigilance and vaccination of children after tests confirmed an outbreak of polio in Mbale City.

Dr Allan Muruta, the commissioner of Integrated Epidemiology Surveillance and Public Health Emergencies at the Health ministry, said the outbreak was discovered through their surveillance system.

“That means poliovirus is circulating in the community and many other children are vulnerable out there to the polio virus infection, which has got a bad effect, it is disabling,” he said in an interview yesterday.

Dr Moses Mugonyi, the Mbale City health officer, said the poliovirus was discovered in samples taken from the sewage in the city. 

Poliovirus multiplies in an infected person and is excreted in their stool (faeces). This stool is flushed into the sewage system, where the poliovirus can be detected through laboratory testing.

“The tests were done in Entebbe at the Uganda Virus Research Institute, and then another sample was taken to the World Health Organisation (WHO) lab in Johannesburg, South Africa for further confirmatory tests. And they all confirmed that poliovirus is circulating in the population of Mbale City,” Dr Mugonyi said. 

He said the outbreak was declared in Mbale on June 7. 

The health officials blamed the outbreak on the suboptimal immunisation coverage and possible importation of the virus. 

“Usually, the outbreak comes as a result of a circulating virus either from people coming from outside or lack of coverage by that vaccine among the communities,” Dr Muruta said.

“This means there are some children who are not immunised, allowing the virus to spread. So, we should make sure that all children who are eligible for vaccination, should come out and get vaccinated,” he added.

According to data from WHO, in 2016, the coverage of the first dose of the inactivated polio-containing vaccine for Uganda was at 60 percent, in 2019 (87.9 percent) and in 2022 (94.8 percent), meaning that while more children are getting the jabs, a significant number is also not covered. 

This outbreak comes about three years after the government declared the outbreak of the “circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus type 2 (cVDPV2)” in July 2021.  

In July 2021, Dr Henry Mwebesa, the director general of Health Services at the Health ministry, said owing to the low coverage of the polio vaccine, as high as “4.6 million children under five years” were “susceptible to paralytic infection of type two poliovirus”. 

However, Dr Mugonyi said they are intensifying efforts to identify people with the poliovirus and those showing symptoms. 

“And in case there is a child who develops weakness in the limbs, they should be brought to the facility for assessment. If you have any child who did not complete vaccination by the age of five, then we encourage people to bring them to the health facilities for immunisation,” he said.

“But in case you doubt even the immunisation status of the child, you have to bring them to the facility, especially for those who are below five years,” he added.

About polio 

According to information fromt the Ministry of Health, polio is a highly infectious disease caused by the poliovirus. 

It invends the nervous system and can cause paralysis, especially in the lower and upper limbs (legs and arms) or even death in a very short time. 

There's no cure for polio but it can be prevented by immunization. The poliovirus enters the body through the mouth, in water or food that has been contaminated with faecal material from an infected person. 

The virus multiplies in the intestines and is excreted by an infected person from which the virus can be passed to others.

The signs and symptoms of polio can include fever, headache, fatigue, vomiting, stiffness in the neck and pain in the limbs.