Malaysia Won’t Declare Emergency Over Polio For Now

By Vinodh Pillai | 27 December 2019

The World Health Organization recently urged Malaysia and three other Southeast Asian countries to step up their game in polio eradication.

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KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 27 — Malaysia does not currently plan to follow the World Health Organization’s (WHO) advice to declare a national public health emergency over polio.

As the polio outbreak is contained in Sabah, the Ministry of Health (MOH) said there is no need to have a nationwide state of emergency, which WHO had recommended Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Myanmar to do so given outbreaks of the highly contagious disease this year.

However, MOH said this did not mean the ministry was snubbing the recommendations given by the public health agency of the United Nations (UN), noting it had stepped up its polio eradication methods in the East Malaysian state, as advised by the WHO.

An MOH spokesman added that while an emergency will not be declared at the national level, steps had been taken at the federal level at MOH to begin immediate work on containing the outbreak in Sabah, including purchasing polio vaccines, the use of which is the only way of preventing the disease from spreading.

The spokesman also spoke of increased efforts of polio investigations and immunisation coverage for children under the age of five in the peninsula that are in place.

Health director-general Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah announced on December 8 that a three-month-old Malaysian baby boy from Tuaran, Sabah, became the first reported polio case in Malaysia 27 years after the last case in 1992, and 19 years after Malaysia was declared polio-free in 2000.

Tests showed the boy was infected with a polio strain that shared genetic links with the virus detected in the Philippine cases, which has since reported an eighth case of polio. Sabah is the nearest Malaysian state to the Philippines.

In a statement last Friday, WHO said a state of emergency at the state and national levels for Malaysia should be declared for nine months with no reported infections, and until there is documentation of full application of high-quality eradication activities in all infected and high-risk areas.

WHO also noted that the outbreak of the polio virus strain in Malaysia among the cross-border population shared between Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia, shows how such groups are often unreached by government immunisation programmes.

Responding to this, the MOH spokesman CodeBlue spoke to said the ministry has been working closely with the Sabah state government to provide polio vaccines to all children there, be they undocumented, foreign, or local, for free.

MOH has already vaccinated all children under the age of five in the vicinity of the Tuaran village where the polio case emerged from, and is now preparing to vaccinate all children in other nearby high-risk areas, following which the entire state will be vaccinated. The spokesman could not say how much this would cost the federal government.

“As a response to the outbreak, we have divided (our polio eradication efforts) into three phases. The first phase (includes providing an) immediate response to the outbreak where investigations, contact tracing, mopping up immunisation, enforcement and controls at the affected district (is carried out).

“Today we started phase two, that is (starting) Supplementary Immunisation Activities (SIA) at high-risk areas,” the spokesman said, adding that nine such districts have been identified so far.

The spokesman could not say if Malaysia would restrict at all departure points those who lack documentation of appropriate polio vaccination, or if it would ensure that residents and long-term residents (or those who stay in the country for more than four weeks) would receive polio vaccination, as recommended by the WHO.

Meanwhile, in a statement today, Dr Noor Hisham said all children under the age of five in Sabah will be given oral immunisation through the oral polio vaccine, or OPV, in line with international standard operating procedures in responding to a polio outbreak.

Dr Noor Hisham said the ongoing Sabah Polio Immunisation Campaign 2019/2020 aims to vaccinate all children below five-years-old with two OPV doses by June 2020. Four weeks must pass after the first OPV dose is administered before the second OPV dose.

However, he said children with low immunity levels such as cancer patients receiving chemotherapy, or those suffering from leukaemia or lymphoma, will not receive the OPV vaccine.

Some 114 volunteers have been tasked to provide information about polio and ensuring that parents and caretakers bring their children who are younger than five to get polio immunisation. They will also be going house-to-house to give the OPV to those children who are eligible for it.

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