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Vaccinations for up to 12 million children to prevent the spread of polio in Africa will be delayed, in a major redeployment of polio eradication resources to fight the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Polio prevention campaigns, which are vital to avert outbreaks, will be suspended until at least the second half of 2020, said Dr Pascal Mkanda, the head of polio for World Health Organization Africa. The decision will inevitably lead to a rise in polio cases.
“We took the difficult decision to suspend these plans and considered it would have a significant impact on preventing the spread of new outbreaks,” he said. “New outbreaks of polio will appear because we will not be able to administer the vaccines in time.”
The move is the “right decision”, Mkanda said, “because we need to tackle Covid-19 and because the process of administering vaccinations can actually increase the spread of the virus”.
The effect of the lack of vaccinations has already begun to emerge. On Saturday, Niger reported two new polio cases, affecting children in the capital, Niamey, and the Tillabéri region, according to the WHO. The cases are the first in the west African country since an outbreak which lasted two years was eradicated last December.
Niger stopped the previous polio outbreaks by mounting high-quality mass vaccination campaigns,” Mkanda said.
The country is one of 15 in Africa experiencing “vaccine-derived poliovirus outbreaks”, with cases spreading among parts of the populations yet to receive a vaccination.
Polio, a highly infectious disease that spreads through contaminated water or food, often affects children under five, with about one in 200 infections leading to paralysis. Of those paralysed, up to 10% die because of crippled breathing muscles.
More than 95% of populations need to be immunised for polio to fully be eradicated.
The increase and success of preventive vaccination campaigns around the world – particularly in Africa and Asia, where the disease has been a scourge – had given international health authorities hope that polio could be eradicated. Yet the Covid-19 pandemic has significantly set back efforts.
Administering the oral polio vaccines would put patients at risk of contaminating Covid-19, the WHO said.
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