Malawi counts polio vaccination success after discovery of first case in 30 years


A child is vaccinated against the polio virus. Malawi discovered a single case and began a mass vaccination program against the paralysis-causing disease. Credit: Charles Mpaka/IPS
  • by Charles Mpaka (Blantyre, Malawi
  • Inter Press Service

And when Malawi announced in February of this year that it had discovered a case of polio in the capital, Lilongwe, the alarm was raised, and the response from both the government and global health partners was swift, if not frantic.

The polio virus, which was detected in a 3-year-old child, is described by experts as a major public health problem for several reasons.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), polio has no cure and is a highly contagious disease.

“It invades the nervous system and can cause total paralysis within hours,” the WHO said in a statement released on Feb. 17, 2022 following the announcement of the outbreak by the government of Malawi.

Furthermore, Malawi has not recorded any cases of polio in 30 years. The country last reported a case of polio virus in 1992.

In 2005, Malawi achieved polio-free status.

The WHO goes on to say that the last case of wild poliovirus in Africa was detected in northern Nigeria in 2016. Worldwide, only five cases of wild poliovirus had been recorded by 2021.

In addition, according to the United Nations health agency, Africa was declared free from native wild polio in August 2020 after all forms of wild polio were eliminated.

To date, the WHO says, polio remains endemic in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and lab test results on the case in Malawi showed the strain was linked to those in Pakistan’s Sindh province.

“As long as wild polio exists around the world, all countries are at risk of importing the virus,” said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, at the announcement.

Immediately after the outbreak, the government declared a public health emergency.

It also instituted risk assessment and surveillance measures to contain any potential spread of the virus – but it assured there was no evidence that the polio virus was circulating in the community. There have been no reports of new cases of polio to date.

Within 72 hours, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) Rapid Response Team arrived in the country to support the outbreak response.

These efforts were followed by a massive vaccination campaign, the first of four rounds, targeting 2.9 million children under the age of five.

UNICEF bought 6.9 million doses of polio vaccine for exercise.

UNICEF has partnered with WHO and the Gavi, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Rotary and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative to support the Department of Health with child vaccination in four massive campaigns.

The phase ran from 21 to 26 March 2022.

According to a poliovirus outbreak situation report released by the government on April 4, 2.97 million children aged 0 to 59 months had been vaccinated in the campaign, representing 102 percent administrative coverage.

The Ministry of Health says it is pleased with the success of the campaign.

“We attribute this to the dedicated staff, door-to-door approach and low incidence of misconceptions, misinformation and misinformation around polio vaccine,” said Adrian Chikumbe, the ministry’s spokesperson.

But the campaign was affected by some challenges, the health ministry admits in the immunization campaign assessment report.

Malawi is reeling from the effects of Cyclones Ana and Gome, which hit the country in January this year, causing flooding in many parts of the country and displacing nearly a million people. According to the report, the dispersion of communities due to flooding increased the workload for vaccination teams.

“Door-to-door strategy polio campaigns have not been implemented in the country for more than a decade, so door-to-door vaccination is not strictly followed in some areas. In some communities, grassroots social mobilization has also slowed down,” the report adds.

The second phase of the polio vaccination campaign is planned for the end of April.

“We urge all of us to keep winning in the first round of the campaign by ensuring that no eligible child is left behind in the subsequent rounds of the campaign. That way, our children are adequately protected against polio, which leads to paralysis or even death,” says Chikumbe.

UNICEF says the re-emergence of wild polio virus in Malawi, three decades after it was last discovered, is “serious concern”.

“Vaccination is the only way to protect the children of Malawi from this crippling disease that is highly contagious,” said Rudolf Schwenk, UNICEF representative in Malawi.

According to UNICEF, as an epidemic-prone, highly contagious disease, polio can spread easily through the movement of people from endemic to polio-free areas.

This polio vaccination campaign comes nine months after Malawi also carried out another polio vaccination in July last year, when the country undertook a week-long catch-up campaign targeting 1.8 million children who had previously missed the vaccine.

The Department of Health says last year’s vaccination campaign aimed to immunize all children born after the world switched from trivalent oral polio vaccine (tOPV) to bivalent oral polio vaccine (bOPV). The bOPV is said to protect children against all three types of polioviruses.

Health activist Maziko Matemba tells IPS that one case of polio is one too many because of the rapid spread of the virus and the severity of the consequences.

“You need a quick response to prevent its spread. You may not get it done if it slips through, so immunization is essential,” said Matemba, also executive director of the Health and Rights Education Program (HREP), a local non-governmental organization.

But he says the resurgence of the case after 30 years in Malawi should remind the government of the need to ensure the resilience of the health system.

He says this resilience can be achieved through adequate funding of the health sector.

“As a country, we need to ensure that our health system is resilient and robust. One way we can achieve this is by complying with the Abuja Declaration on Health to allocate at least 15 percent of the national budget to the health sector.

“Twenty-one years after that statement, we are still no further than 10 percent of the budget allocation to the health sector. Without adequate funding, outbreaks of this nature can spiral out of control and we will struggle to contain other health shocks,” said Matemba.

Since the last case in 1992, Malawi has continued its polio surveillance through an independent committee of experts that oversees and coordinates the country’s polio monitoring and reporting system.

Report of the IPS UN Office

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© Inter Press Service (2022) — All rights reservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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