Good news in the fight against polio. Vaccination campaigns have been able to resume in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the only two countries in the world where this disease is still endemic, months after measures to contain covid-19 left 50 million children without the vaccine.
“These vaccines save lives and are essential so that children do not suffer another health emergency,” said Jean Gough, Unicef regional director for South Asia. “As the world has learned, viruses know no borders and no child will be safe from polio until everyone is safe.” As early as July, polio vaccination programs were resumed in three provinces of Afghanistan. This month a second campaign has begun that will cover almost half the country. An initial round of vaccinations for some 780,000 children was carried out in Pakistan in late July. In addition, a nationwide vaccination campaign is scheduled to begin at the end of this month.
Polio is a highly infectious, crippling, and sometimes fatal disease that can be prevented with a vaccine. Children under the age of five are particularly vulnerable. Immunization given by mouth has prevented more than 16 million cases, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Thanks to the vaccine, the prevalence was reduced from 350,000 cases in 1988 to just 33 in 2018.
Child vaccination campaigns, including those for polio, were halted in both Afghanistan and Pakistan in March 2020 to avoid the risk of COVID-19 transmission among children, their caregivers and the vaccinators themselves. As a result, reported polio cases have reached 34 in Afghanistan and 63 in Pakistan, including in parts of the country that were previously free of the disease.
UNICEF fears that up to a million children in Afghanistan may be left out of the polio vaccine, since in some areas it is not possible to go door to door
Both the WHO and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) made on July 15 an appeal on the “alarming decline” in vaccinating children around the world. In addition, at least 30 immunization campaigns against measles are at risk of being canceled or have already been canceled, which could lead to new outbreaks. According a poll conducted in May 2020 in 82 countries by UNICEF, WHO and the Global Vaccination Alliance (GAVI), three-quarters of them reported having suffered disruptions in vaccination services for reasons related to covid-19.
The implementation of new vaccination guidelines and the use of protective equipment by health workers on the front line will help ensure that campaigns are safely resumed. Unicef is concerned that up to a million children in Afghanistan may be left out, as in some areas it is not possible to vaccinate door to door and parents will have to walk to health centers with their children. In Pakistan, the interruption of vaccination campaigns has also caused the disease to be introduced and spread in new areas of the country.
“Although we have experienced new challenges and setbacks in the fight against polio due to covid-19, it is entirely within our power to get the eradication of this infectious disease back on track,” said Jean Gough. “Along with their respective governments and our partners – including WHO, Rotary, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention–, and with the dedicated work of healthcare workers on the front line, we are determined to reach out to all children. “