According to the World Health Organization, 1 in 200 polio infections leads to irreversible paralysis. Thankfully, the cases of polio have nosedived from an estimated 350,000 in 1988 to 33 cases in 2018. A polio vaccine administered orally several times can provide lifelong immunity for children. The gains made so far in the fight towards polio eradication may be reversed as a result of coronavirus.
Niger recently reported a new outbreak of polio in the country. According to the United Nations health agency, the mutant virus infected two children, leaving one paralyzed. The outbreak is from a mutant virus that originated from the vaccine. The mutant virus is different from the one responsible for the previous outbreak in the country. Reacting to the development, Pascal Mkanda, WHO’s coordinator of polio eradication in Africa said,
“The poliovirus will inevitably continue to circulate and may paralyze more children as no high-quality immunization campaigns can be conducted in a timely manner.”
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, there has been a major disruption in transportation. Flights have been grounded and people are forced to stay in their homes. Some of the vaccine manufacturers are now focused on finding a cure for the new coronavirus. The combination of these factors has led to a severe shortage in the polio vaccine. However, there is a bigger threat to polio eradication in Africa and across the globe.
The other threat to polio eradication campaigns
The full eradication of polio will require the immunization of at least 95% of the population. No fewer than 14 countries in Africa are struggling to contain polio epidemic. The previous target set by health officials for polio eradication was 2000. However, that deadline has been extended and missed several times. With the outbreak of COVID-19, any set deadline in the near future is likely to be missed. Any push to continue the oral polio vaccine administration can put the patients at risk of contracting coronavirus.
Polio eradication campaigns usually require the convergence of millions of health workers. Organizing such campaigns now will break social distancing rules. The head of polio for WHO in Africa, Dr. Pascal Mkanda has hinted that all polio eradication campaigns will be suspended until July. This will certainly lead to a rise in polio cases. He said,
“We took the difficult decision to suspend these plans and considered it would have a significant impact on preventing the spread of new outbreaks. New outbreaks of polio will appear because we will not be able to administer the vaccines in time.”
A few weeks ago, President Trump of the United States announced the withdrawal of funding from the WHO. The reason was for the failure of the global health body to quickly alert the world on the seriousness of the virus. The WHO relies on funding from member states to organize immunization campaigns against viruses with potential lifelong fatality. If the fund withdrawal by the U.S. becomes permanent, the WHO will have to prioritize its projects. This may mean the skipping of important vaccination campaigns.
The danger of halting or scaling back vaccination
Niger is not the only country that has witnessed the resurgence of polio. A similar outbreak was reported in the Philippines in September 2019. This was the first in about twenty years. Consequently, the WHO is warning that children across the globe will die if there is a halt in vaccination. Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the WHO said polio is a more serious threat to children than COVID-19. Highlighting the dangers of halting vaccination, he said,
“When vaccination coverage goes down, more outbreaks will occur, including life-threatening diseases like measles and polio. The tragic reality is that children will die as a result. So far, 14 vaccination campaigns supported by Gavi against polio, measles, cholera, human papillomavirus, yellow fever, and meningitis have been postponed, which would have immunized more than 13 million people.’’
Inasmuch as it is important to stay home to prevent the spread of COVID-19, parents need to find the balance. Children deserve to be equipped with vaccines to fight more deadly diseases like polio. Therefore, as the world struggles to contain COVID-19, polio eradication should not be relegated to the sideline.
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