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Fears of polio spike among children in South Sudan as new cases put children’s lives at further risk 

Juba, South SudanNovember 2, 2020: A spike in polio cases raises deep concerns over the further spread of polio in South Sudan, compounded by low levels of sanitation and health care available, Save the Children warned today. 

Just three months after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Africa free of the wild polio virus,[1][1] South Sudan has recorded at least nine new cases of polio[2][2]. These recent cases are reportedly from the vaccine-derived poliovirus 2 (cVDPV2)[3][3], a mutation of a weakened form of the virus that was administered through vaccination. This is leading to fears that even less families will vaccinate children, as well as could spread further due to the lack of proper sanitation in many parts of the country.  

With already one of the highest under 5 mortality rates in the world[4][4], a chronically malnourished population and recurring epidemics, South Sudan faces a new threat to children in a new poliovirus outbreak, Save the Children warned.

South Sudan’s health care system is already weak, specifically in the Greater Bahr el Ghazal region where the new polio cases surfaced. Coupled with low vaccination coverage and poor hygiene and sanitation in the area, the virus poses a risk for children in Sudan, where only 40 percent of the people have access to health care

The situation is exacerbated by recent floods which have destroyed parts of the health infrastructure and limited access to essential health services such as vaccination programs. Some 368,000[5][5] people are displaced by floods in South Sudan.  

Rama Hansraj, Save the Children Country Director: 

“Polio usually can spread rapidly in areas with a lack of clean, safe water. Violence and floods in some parts of the country hamper access to health services as well, pushing unvaccinated children to a high risk of infection. The Ministry of Health and partners like Save the Children have grave concerns that a resurface of polio poses a threat to children’s lives, as the child health situation in the country is already worsening. This outbreak has emerged as a result of a low immunity and under-immunization of communities rather than a problem with the vaccine.’’

As of April 2020, only 890,000 children younger than five years were vaccinated against polio[6][6].  More polio campaigns are planned, but funding and access to some areas make the work challenging. Save the Children is calling the international community and South Sudanese government to: 

  1. Provide urgent financial assistance to increase the Polio campaign across the country; 
  2. Ensure unhindered access for polio campaigners in order to reach every last child;  
  3. Strengthen public emergency health capacities through increased public financial spending on child health. 

END 

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Notes to editors:
Polio is a highly infectious disease caused by a virus that mainly affects children under five years old. The virus attacks the spinal cord and causes irreversible paralysis in children. It is transmitted by the fecal-oral route and by aerosol droplets – especially through contaminated water.

[7][1] https://www.who.int/news/item/25-08-2020-global-polio-eradication-initiative-applauds-who-african-region-for-wild-polio-free-certification

[8][2] http://polioeradication.org/where-we-work/south-sudan-2/

[9][3] https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vpd/polio/hcp/vaccine-derived-poliovirus-faq.html

[10][4] South Sudan has a mortality rate for children under five of 96.2 per 1,000 live births. See link.  

[11][5] https://reliefweb.int/report/south-sudan/south-sudan-flooding-snapshot-05-october-2020#:~:text=An%20estimated%20800%2C000%20people%20have,and%20children%20are%20most%20affected

[12][6] https://www.afro.who.int/news/polio-expertise-steers-covid-19-response-south-sudan