GPs are being urged to make sure patients travelling to Papua New Guinea (PNG) are fully vaccinated against polio after the World Health Organization (WHO) warned of an outbreak of vaccine-derived poliovirus.
There are concerns that the virus may spread, with PNG now officially listed as a state with potential risk of international spread.
Thousands of high profile international visitors including US Vice President Mike Pence will arrive in the PNG capital of Port Moresby when the country hosts the annual APEC meeting in mid-November
The WHO called on neighbouring countries such as Australia to be vigilant and strengthen their polio surveillance.
Australia’s nearest neighbour has been dealing with an outbreak of vaccine-derived polio this year, with 10 confirmed cases so far. The latest case is a six-year-old boy from Five Mile, an informal settlement on the outskirts of Port Moresby where many internal migrants settle.
The WHO declared the outbreak an international public health emergency. The PNG Government will roll out a rapid response vaccination campaign in Port Moresby from 24 September, moving nationwide in October.
It is the first outbreak in the country of seven million for 18 years, and reverses its previous polio-free status.
‘The new outbreak of cVDPV1 in PNG highlights that there are vulnerable areas of the world not usually the focus of eradication efforts,’ the WHO stated in a release.
The outbreak is due to a very rare event in which the weakened vaccine-virus given to people is excreted and continues to survive long enough to mutate into a form that can paralyse people, known as a circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus (cVDPV).
Outbreaks of vaccine-derived polio have also recently occurred in Somalia, Kenya, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nigeria. Wild polio is only present in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria, where political instability has made efforts to immunise the population more difficult.
Many Papuans and Australians travel back and forth between the two countries, with a particular link between Queensland and PNG. PNG is Australia’s largest aid recipient, and was an Australian colony until 1975.
The Australian Department of Health has issued advice to clinicians, stating that polio is ‘very unlikely to spread in Australia’ because of high vaccination coverage, good sanitation and the ability to respond to possible cases.
The PNG Government is working with international partners to trace contacts, and test and vaccinate people.
Australians planning to visit PNG for fewer than four weeks should make sure their polio vaccinations are up to date. Those staying longer need a polio booster between 12 months and four weeks before departure.
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