Polio eradication: Africa to vaccinate 21 million children

This would be the continent’s largest polio vaccination campaign since 2020 

By Madhumita Paul
Published: Monday 29 May 2023
Eradicating polio requires immunising every child until the transmission stops. Photo: WHO.

On May 26, 2023, three countries — Cameroon, Chad and Niger — kicked off Africa’s largest polio vaccination campaign since 2020, according to World Health Organization (WHO). 

Through this exercise, the three West and Central African countries intend to immunise 21 million children under the age of five. The vaccination drive started in response to 19 detections of type-2 Polioviruses; two cases in Niger, 10 in Chad, four in the Central African Republic and three in Cameroon.

Also read: Global spread of vaccine-derived polio still a high risk: WHO

The multi-country initiative is supported by WHO through the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI). It comprises synchronised vaccinations and joint plans in border communities to stop polio transmission.

“This is a crucial undertaking to close vaccination gaps in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and will provide millions of children with vital protection from the risk of irreversible polio paralysis,” WHO Regional Director for Africa Dr Matshidiso Moeti said in a press release.

All polio cases in West and Central Africa are due to circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus — the final strain of polio remaining on the African continent; these outbreaks are rare.

Lake Chad basin, where the campaign is underway, is among the areas with the highest percentage of unvaccinated or under-vaccinated children in the world, WHO noted. In the wake of the ongoing outbreaks of circulating variant poliovirus, countries have also stepped up surveillance to detect cases.

The new vaccination drive aims to strengthen immunisation activities by equipping community health workers to administer vaccines in homes, religious centres, markets and schools.

Polio is a highly infectious viral disease that primarily affects children under five years and causes permanent paralysis or death. There is no cure, but safe and effective vaccines can protect children. Eradicating polio requires immunising every child until transmission stops.

 Read more: Polio virus in sewage sample again: This time in UK

In 1988, GPEI, of which WHO is a founding member — set out to eradicate polio worldwide. The mission required mass vaccination that reaches every child. 2023 is a critical year for GPEI. It is the target year to interrupt all remaining wild poliovirus type 1 and circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus type 2 transmission chains, according to the GPEI Polio Eradication Strategy 2022-2026.

Furthermore, reliable data is fundamental to ensuring effective disease surveillance and response to epidemics. “The use of Geographic Information Systems tools, including Open Data Kit, is also accelerating the response to alerts of potential polio cases, helping curb the spread of the virus,” said Richelot Ayangma, GPEI lead in West and Central Africa.

In late April, WHO, Rotary International, UNICEF, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also decided to mobilise ‘The big catch-up’ initiative. This is a targeted global effort to boost essential immunisation among children following declines driven by the COVID-19 pandemic.

This effort aims to reverse the declines in childhood vaccination recorded in over 100 countries since the pandemic due to overburdened health services, closed clinics and disrupted imports and exports of vials, syringes and other medical supplies.

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