Papua New Guinea polio outbreak spreads to capital

Anne Gulland
A girl in Pakistan receives the oral polio vaccine. New injectable vaccines do not lead to disease outbreaks - AP

A case of polio has been confirmed in Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea, prompting fears that the outbreak could spread in a densely packed urban centre.

This latest case brings the total number of children to have been diagnosed with the disease to 10. The Papua New Guinea government declared a public health emergency in June after the first case of the disease emerged.

Prior to this outbreak the country's last case of polio occurred in 1996 and the country was declared polio free in 2000, along with the rest of the Pacific region. 

“This is very concerning. Every new case of polio isn’t just a statistic. Each represents a child that will be permanently paralysed,” said Pasco Kase, secretary of the National Department of Health (NDOH).

“In response to this recent case in Port Moresby, the NDOH and partners will start an emergency polio vaccination campaign on 24 September in the National Capital District. A nationwide polio campaign will commence on 1 October," he said.

The WHO representative in Papua New Guinea, Dr Luo Dapeng said: “The confirmation of polio in an urban area is very worrisome, and WHO and partners are working together to support the government to continue to actively search for all possible polio cases, rapidly scale up the response in Port Moresby with the emergency vaccination and embark on a nationwide vaccination in the succeeding rounds of the campaign.”

This outbreak is caused by a vaccine-derived poliovirus which differs to wild poliovirus, which is circulating in just three countries in the world: Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria. 

Vaccine-derived poliovirus is a weakened version of the virus used in the vaccine and it can cause outbreaks in countries whose populations are under immunised.

Childhood immunisation rates stand at just 47 per cent in Papua New Guinea. 

Vaccination teams are intensifying efforts particularly in densely populated areas such as settlements, mining communities and areas where there is significant movement of people to ensure that all children are vaccinated and protected against polio.

Papua New Guinea is one of the poorest countries in the world with those in remote communities very difficult to reach. Because of this, WHO has said that the risk of international spread of this outbreak is low.

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