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Ukraine at risk of polio outbreak, says WHO

KIEV (Reuters) - Public distrust of vaccination is reducing the rate of immunization against polio in Ukraine, putting the country at risk of an outbreak of the crippling disease, World Health Organization and U.N. officials warned on Friday.

The vaccination rate for children up to one year of age, the usual age for anti-polio immunization, is now at a very low level of 30-50 percent and the risk of a polio outbreak from an imported virus has significantly increased, they said.

The highly-infectious disease, which mainly affects children under five and can be prevented but not cured, has been eradicated in Europe and the developed world. Ukraine has not recorded any cases of polio for decades.

But U.N. health officials say the recent reappearance of the virus in Israel and Syria, together with Ukraine's falling rate of immunization, has put the former Soviet republic suddenly at risk.

Thousands of Israelis visit Ukraine every year, while hundreds of Ukrainians are employed on contract as engineers and construction workers in Syria, many of whom have returned home since the spread of civil war there.

"Recommending to people not to travel is no help," Dorit Nitzan, the WHO representative in Ukraine, told a news conference. "A virus does not know borders. We are really dealing about time now. It is no longer about 'if' but 'when'," she said, referring to the possibility of an outbreak.

Immunization is theoretically mandatory for children in Ukraine and vaccinations are provided free under state health care. But many parents refuse to have children vaccinated, fearing vaccines are of poor quality, and the authorities in practice find it hard to insist otherwise.

Ukrainians say family doctors can also often be bribed into signing fake certificate to show a child has received sufficient medical protection from infectious diseases when in fact it has had no vaccinations at all.

U.N. officials say public suspicion of vaccines, fed by adverse media coverage, lie at the heart of a sharp fall-off in the immunization rate in Ukraine since 2008.

"There is a lot of public distrust (of vaccination). But polio is highly infectious - once it starts it spreads very quickly. The risk (of an outbreak) is high and we want the government to do something about it," said Yukie Mokuo, the U.N. Children's Fund representative in Ukraine.

Lack of funds for state procurement of vaccines is also a problem in the cash-strapped country, where the state budget is constantly under pressure, officials say.

"What we have to do is support the ministries in rebuilding their vaccination system," said Nitzan.

(Writing By Richard Balmforth; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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