By Sharon Atieno

Though Africa has been certified free of Wild poliovirus, the continent is experiencing an upsurge of circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus type 2 (cVDPV2).

During the online meeting of the 71st session of the World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Committee for Africa (RC 71), Dr.Ndoutabe Modjirom, Coordinator of the Polio Rapid Response Team at the WHO Regional Office, stated that several countries have experienced outbreaks in the region.

He noted that in 2020, 14 countries had experienced cVDPV2 outbreaks. In 2021, the situation worsened with more than 538 cases of cVDPV2 reported from West and Central African countries.

Polio continues to spread in the African region partly due to poor sanitation- limited access to clean water and hygiene, and practicing open defecation- and low vaccine coverage in some countries.

Speaking during a media briefing, Dr. Felicite Tchibindat, Deputy Regional Director of the United Nations Children Emergency Fund (UNICEF), West and Central Africa noted that oral polio vaccines remain the safest and effective option for protecting children from polio.

“The more children get vaccinated, the more protected the community is,” she said. “This is why we urgently need to support the polio immunization strategy by deploying vaccination campaigns on the spot where outbreaks occur and by engaging in communities and with mothers to get children vaccinated.”

Dr. Tunji Funsho, Rotary International admits that due to the coronavirus pandemic, there were suspension of campaigns between March and July which resulted in huge gaps of children who were vaccinated, leading to increased transmission.

However, by 16th August, 48 million children in the African region have been vaccinated against polio, he said.

Dr. Funsho noted that African governments have been making great strides in the fight against polio including implementing new tools and tactics to ensure increased vaccine coverage.

Some of these tools include setting up of the rapid response team which is being used to reach children more rapidly and comprehensively when outbreaks occur. The team -trained and mandated to respond within 72 hours- investigates, develops and carries out an initial outbreak response campaign, he explained.

So far, since the team was formed in 2019, it has managed to control outbreaks of cVDPV2 in Kenya, Niger and Mozambique.

Being that delayed payment of frontline workers was a big challenge for the polio campaigns, mobile money payment is another tool being utilized. The late payments, according to Dr. Funsho could lead to serious delays in campaigns and outbreak response, divert scarce resources away from health care delivery and increase the inefficiency of health systems.

Another new tool that is being used is the new monovalent type 2 vaccine (nOPV2) which has been deployed in six countries including Sierra Leone, Niger, Benin, Liberia, Congo and Nigeria. The vaccine has reached nearly 38 million children so far. However, COVID-19 has resulted in shortage of the vaccine.

Dr Chris Elias, Chairman of the Polio Oversight Board speaking at the RC71, said the global vaccine supply has unfortunately been disrupted due to the impact of COVID-19.

“The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) will continue to collaborate with the manufacturer to find solutions to secure additional supply of nOPV2 as soon as possible. In the meantime, however, outbreak response cannot wait. To stop cVDPV2 in its tracks, urgent and high-quality campaigns are key.”

Africa was certified Wild poliovirus free during the 70th session of the WHO African Regional Committee in 2020. This was after the last four countries of the region where the virus had been previously detected were declared free of the virus following four years of not reporting any cases.

Prior to the resolution of the Forty-First session of the World Health Assembly (WHA) in 1988 to eradicate polio globally by the year 2000, polio a highly infectious disease was a major cause of paralysis among children in the African region with an estimated 75,000 children affected annually.

Since the renewed campaign to kick polio out of Africa in 1996, almost 9 billion polio vaccines have been delivered in Africa. 1.8 million cases of paralysis have been averted and up to 180, 000 lives have been saved, according to 2020 data.