Five southeastern African countries are set to begin vaccination drives against polio after an outbreak was declared in Malawi last month, the World Health Organization has said, highlighting the multiple health challenges facing countries on the continent as they grapple with the coronavirus pandemic.
Polio is an infectious disease that has no cure and that can be fatal or cause lasting paralysis. Vaccines are the most powerful prevention, but the pandemic dealt a serious setback to global efforts to immunize children against polio, as well as measles and other diseases, reducing worldwide coverage for some vaccines to levels not seen in more than a decade. Gavi, the vaccine alliance, said in September that the pandemic had caused a global drop in routine childhood vaccinations to 78 percent in 2021 from 82 percent in 2020.
Malawi declared an outbreak of the wild poliovirus last month, after it was diagnosed in a child in the capital, Lilongwe. The case was the first detection of the wild poliovirus in Africa since 2016, and came almost two years after the continent was declared free of it. According to the W.H.O., laboratory analysis linked the strain in Malawi to one circulating in 2019 in the Sindh Province of Pakistan, one of only two countries where polio is endemic. The other is Afghanistan.
“This is a dangerous moment,” Modjirom Ndoutabe, the polio coordinator for W.H.O. Africa, said in a phone interview with Reuters from Brazzaville, the Republic of Congo. “Even if there is one country in the world with polio, all the other countries are in big trouble.”
The polio immunization drive will begin in Malawi on Sunday, and will be targeting more than 23 million children under the age of 5 in that country, Mozambique, Tanzania, Zambia and, later, Zimbabwe. The campaigns will continue until July, aiming to administer up to 80 million doses of oral polio vaccine, the W.H.O. regional office for Africa said in a statement on Friday. “The objective is to reach children who are either not immunized, or only partially protected, and to boost immunity in those who have been immunized,” the statement said.
The W.H.O. said that Malawi was also stepping up polio surveillance efforts, which have lagged broadly during the pandemic, in both national and community health facilities.
“The African region has already defeated wild poliovirus due to a monumental effort by countries,” Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, the W.H.O. regional director for Africa, said in the statement. “We have the know-how and are tirelessly working to ensure that every child lives and thrives in a continent free of polio.”
The concern over polio compounds the health challenges African countries face from the coronavirus pandemic. In the week ending March 13, the continent reported almost 50,000 new cases, an increase of 11 percent compared with the week before, according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 500 Covid deaths were also reported during the same period.
Though Covid vaccines are increasingly available, many people in Africa have skipped the shots because of widespread vaccine hesitancy, misinformation, logistical challenges and the belief that the pandemic is over as nations relax restrictions. Africa lags all other continents in Covid vaccinations.