‘Imported’ virus strains behind Kenya’s polio outbreaks, says Ministry

Kenya is yet to be declared polio-free despite there being no reports of indigenous strains of the disease in 30 years.

Head of Department of Disease Surveillance at the Ministry of Health Dr Daniel Lang’at said the reported polio outbreaks have been linked to imported strains of the virus, forcing the ministry to conduct several immunisation campaigns.

In the latest campaign set to kick off on Friday in Isiolo County, 2.6 million children under the age of five in 11 counties, majority of them along the border are set to receive the vaccines. These high-risk counties are: Garissa, Marsabit, Isiolo, Kilifi, Turkana, Wajir, Tana River, Nairobi, Mandera, Mombasa, and Lamu.

“We have had no indigenous case of polio since 1984. The cases we have experienced are imported from other countries,” said Lang’at.

He said the importation of the virus is as a result of population increase and movement of people, refugees and immigrants.

In 2006, just a year after the country was declared polio free, two cases were traced to Somalia and in 2009, the 19 cases were traced to South Sudan. In 2011, there was a case in Migori County that was traced to South Sudan via Uganda while in 2013, there were 14 cases reported at Dadaab and Hulugho districts in Mandera County.

The latest was a strain of polio virus, which was isolated in a sewage in Eastleigh, a similar strain to what had been found in Somalia.

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Oral vaccines

“As long as we still have countries that continue to report polio cases, then we are still at risk,” said Lang’at.

While a Type 2 polio isolated in Kamukunji is linked to the oral vaccine, it is still as dangerous as the wild polio virus (Type 1).

The oral vaccine contains a live polio virus, which is given to children in order to stimulate their immunity to produce antibodies against polio virus.

“One gets polio through oral-fecal transmission - when you eat food or drink water that has the virus. That is why there is a direct relation between human waste management and transmission of polio,” said Dr David Githanga, a paediatrician.

The virus is known to cause limb and, in severe cases spinal, paralysis.

Jane Kariuki, from United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) Communication for Development said one of the reasons for the outbreaks is the failure to take children for routine immunisations, hence the supplementary polio vaccine campaigns.

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