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10 Sep, 2014 07:36

Polio epidemic fears as Ukraine’s vaccine stockpiles dry up

Polio epidemic fears as Ukraine’s vaccine stockpiles dry up

Ukraine may face epidemics of preventable diseases like polio due to a government failure to stockpile vaccines and organize inoculation, the UN’s health body warned. The shortage is aggravated by devaluation and a planned ban on Russian drugs.

The healthcare system of Ukraine was not in good shape to start with, and the political crisis and the subsequent civil war further damaged it, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned on Tuesday.

Now with the government failing to procure necessary vaccines, Ukraine may experience outbreaks of diseases usually associated with undeveloped African and Asian counties.

"Ukraine has no vaccines... They don't have any vaccines in their storage," Dr. Dorit Nitzan, who heads the WHO's country office in Ukraine, told reporters in Geneva.

She added that even now many hospitals in Ukraine have no vaccine stockpiles.

“If you go to some leading medical centers in Kiev you may find some, but there are no stockpiles to meet the demand of the entire healthcare system,” she said, adding that in a month there may be no vaccines left whatsoever.

Ukraine needs drugs for measles, tetanus, mumps and diphtheria. But of particular concern for WHO is the potential outbreak of poliomyelitis, a debilitating viral infection mostly hitting young children that "usually comes in countries in turmoil," Nitzan said.

Less than half of Ukrainian children had been vaccinated for polio before the violence in the country escalated in April, and WHO fears that a polio epidemic may start for the first time in three decades, she added.

An intervention by foreign nations and international organizations would be required to stop such an outbreak would be needed the official said. Nitzan reiterated the WHO’s plea to international donors to fund the organization’s operations in Ukraine. Back in mid-August it had appealed for extra $14 million, but has so far received just $40,000, Nitzan said.

Ukraine’s healthcare perils are aggravated by the economic hardships the indebted country is experiencing. Health Minister Oleg Musy said his budget has only around $190 million available for procurement of necessary drugs – enough to purchase about 30 percent of what is needed.

Drug prices have skyrocketed as well due to the rapid devaluation of the national currency, the hryvnia, the hike in demand from unsecure cash-dumping buyers and, according to some officials, overprizing by producers.

Medical personnel look into the ward of the local hospital damaged during recent shelling in Avdeevka, 5 kilometres north of Donetsk on September 8, 2014. (AFP Photo/Anatolii Stepanov)

On top of that the Ukrainian government announced its plan to ban import of all by 20 drugs produced in Russia as soon as October. The move is meant to punish Moscow for what Kiev calls a Russian military intervention in eastern Ukraine.

Last year Ukraine imported $74 million worth of drugs from Russia. While officials say the imports can be easily substituted by those from other countries, the ban does not help with building consumer confidence.

Ukraine drifted into turmoil in November 2013, when the decision to postpone the signing of a free trade deal with the EU triggered mass anti-government protests in Kiev. The protest escalated into rioting and an armed coup that brought the leaders of the protest to power.

Following the coup some of the people living in eastern Ukraine protested against what they saw as increasingly anti-Russian policies of the new authorities. In April, the opposition took arms and organized local militias, to which Kiev responded with a full-scale military campaign. The shelling of rebel-held cities by the Ukrainian army and battles in eastern Ukraine claimed at least 2,700 lives, according to a UN tally.

The military crackdown took its toll on healthcare infrastructure in eastern Ukraine, where 32 hospitals are no longer fully functional, according to Nitzan, including 17 that have been damaged by shelling. Up to 70 percent of healthcare staff has fled eastern Ukraine, along with some 500,000 people who abandoned their homes due to the violence.

A shaky truce was negotiated by representatives of Ukraine, the militias, Russia and the Operation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) last week, but there are concerns that it may not hold up.