A surge in the number of polio cases in Pakistan – the virus’ last refuge in the world besides neighboring Afghanistan – has been attributed by health experts to disruptions in vaccination services caused by lockdowns and restrictions against the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic .
“The rise in polio cases could lead to a global export of infections, and health officials need to step up efforts to track and vaccinate unvaccinated children,” said Misbahud Din, molecular biology and immunology researcher at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad and lead author of a study published online in October in Healthcareon polio vaccination disruptions due to COVID-19 in Pakistan.
Yours told SciDev.Net “80 cases of wild poliovirus (WPV) and 64 cases of circulating vaccine poliovirus (cVDPV) were reported in 2020.”
According to the study, around 40 million children missed the polio vaccination after Pakistan suspended a mass vaccination program on March 26, carried out as part of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI).
With the support of UNICEF, WHO and GPEI partners, the Pakistani government resumed polio vaccination in late July and ran the second of two sub-national campaigns in August as COVID-19 cases in the country fell.
However, enforcement of social distancing, interruptions in vaccine supplies and increased shipping costs during the four-month hiatus had resulted in a loss of momentum in a concerted initiative to make the country polio-free.
Two years ago, Pakistan was nearly polio-free with only 12 reported cases. However, the number of cases rose to 147 in 2019. According to Din, the sharp reversal was due to “illiteracy, vaccine refusal by parents, poverty, conspiracy theories, and refusal to vaccinate by some local religious scholars”.
The concerted efforts in early 2020 led to the expectation that polio transmission will end by 2021 this year. However, the country was then hit by COVID-19, leading to a massive diversion of public health resources to address the new threat.
The interruption in vaccination activities and disruption to other health-related measures due to the COVID-19 pandemic from March to mid-July has increased the number of unimmunized children, including nearly 700,000 newborns per month, leading to widening immunity gaps a UNICEF Report.
“It could be concluded that the diversion of public health funds to combat other outbreaks disrupted plans to eradicate polio, which could lead to the spread of poliovirus in areas with low vaccination rates and immunity,” the new study says .
Din adds that “For countries like Pakistan with limited health facilities it is challenging to deal with the current pandemic and other outbreaks like dengue, malaria and typhoid because COVID-19 has overwhelmed the health system.
Personnel who have already been trained in handling polio vaccinations have been instructed to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. ”
Palitha Mahipala, WHO representative in Pakistan, commented on World Polio Day on October 24th that after the African region was certified as wild polio virus free in August, his organization “is working hard to make Pakistan the next country in the world Journey to a polio-free world “.
The polio program with its partners has now stepped up activities with a revitalized determination to end polio in Pakistan, as was recently done by Africa. „
Palitha Mahipala, representative of the World Health Organization
Din, M., et al. (2020) Delays in Polio Immunization Programs Due to COVID-19 in Pakistan: A Major Threat to Pakistan’s Long War on Polio Virus. Healthcare. doi.org/10.1016/j.puhe.2020.09.004.
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