Poliovirus prompts new vaccination campaign in Egypt

Published online 29 January 2013

Poliovirus found in sewage samples in polio free Egypt has officials worried.

Dalia El-Akkad

© PhotoDisc/Getty Images

Egypt's Ministry of Health and Population is rolling out a new poliovirus vaccination campaign after the virus was discovered in Cairo's sewers in late December 2012.

The detection of the virus in sewage samples, as part of routine environmental surveillance, raises concerns of polio returning to Egypt. But as yet no cases of polio have been found since 2004, says Naeema Al Gasseer, the World Health Organization (WHO) representative in Egypt.

"After sending the samples to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta for genetic sequencing, we traced it back to a virus last seen in Pakistan," says Al Gasseer.

The ministry is taking all necessary precautions, says Amr Kandeel, chief of preventive and endemic disease sector at the Ministry of Health and Population. "We have launched awareness and mandatory vaccination campaigns in the neighbourhoods where the polioviruses were found. We are reaching out to all children, even those of other nationalities who are living in Egypt, to make sure they are all receiving the proper vaccines with help from the WHO and UNICEF."

Another vaccination campaign is planned to reach 160,000 children in nearby areas from 3–7 February 2013. This will be followed by a campaign covering the Greater Cairo area, protecting up to 3 million children under 5 years of age by end of March. Later in the year, the ministry will have its annual statewide campaign at a cost of 35 million EGP (US$5.26 million).

Kandeel contends the virus probably made its way into the sewage system from a person who spent time in Pakistan where they became infected with the virus.

This is not the first time that poliovirus has been found in Egypt by the ongoing monthly environmental surveillance of 34 locations across the country. In 2005, a sample containing wild poliovirus was reported to the WHO, says Kandeel. Then in 2008, two samples of poliovirus originating from South Sudan and India were found. The last time was in the southern city of Aswan in 2010.

Following the recent discovery of the poliovirus, samples will now be collected fortnightly rather than monthly from the five sites located in Cairo.

Polio was endemic in Egypt for thousands of years. Mummies have been found with paralysis linked to polio and an ancient 3,000 years old stone tablet depicts a man with polio. However, intensified campaigns to eradicate the virus in 2002 with support of the WHO's Global Polio Eradication Initiative finally paid off, making the country polio free by 2004. Polio remains endemic in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria.