How polio personnel are pivoting against COVID-19

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World Polio Day, on 24 October, is when the world comes together to celebrate the determination that has brought us 99% of the way to ending polio, and reflect on the heights we must scale to defeat the disease completely.   

This year, Africa was declared free of wild poliovirus, a testimony to the outstanding work of thousands of health workers and their supporters over many decades.

Despite this, 2020 may be the toughest year polio eradicators have ever faced. In the last eight months, immunization services have taken a devastating hit. An estimated 80 million children under one may have missed critical vaccines. Vaccine-preventable diseases – including polio – have spread in the most vulnerable contexts. This year, new outbreaks of vaccine-derived polio have been detected in the Eastern Mediterranean and African regions, including in Yemen, Sudan and South Sudan.

WHO is working closely with national Governments to urgently respond to outbreaks and repair immunization systems affected in the early months of the pandemic. In the context of a significant budget shortfall and increased costs of delivering health interventions due to the pandemic, outbreak response for both polio and measles will require additional funding and urgent action.

Below, learn about the work of polio personnel around the world to deliver polio vaccines and close immunity gaps, whilst continuing to fight COVID-19.

Nasrin Ahmadi, polio worker.

Nasrin Ahmadi, polio worker from Mazar-e-Sharif in Balkh province, Afghanistan. ©WHO/Afghanistan/Roya Haidari

Nasrin Ahmadi, District Polio Officer in Afghanistan

“I chose to continue to do public health awareness during the COVID-19 pandemic. I wanted to help save people’s lives and continue to serve my people,” says Nasrin Ahmadi, a polio worker and volunteer for the COVID-19 response in Balkh province in Afghanistan.

Eight months since the first COVID-19 case was reported in Afghanistan, polio programme frontline workers continue to support outbreak response. During the pandemic, Nasrin has taken on extra duties to identify suspected COVID-19 cases, share accurate information with communities, and trace individuals returning from abroad to encourage them to isolate. Throughout, she has continued to educate families on the importance of polio vaccination.

Read more about Nasrin

Watch this video to see Nasrin in the field.

A young girl waits to be vaccinated

A young girl waits to be vaccinated during national polio and measles vaccination campaign in Mogadishu, Somalia on 1 September 2020. ©WHO Somalia/Ismail Taxta/Ildoog

Mohamed Sharif Mohamed, Regional Polio Eradication Officer in Somalia

In addition to his polio duties, Mohamed provides COVID-19 support to 17 districts in Banadir, Somalia through coordinating and training COVID-19 teams, carrying out active surveillance visits to health facilities and reviewing reports submitted by district polio officers on the pandemic response.

In September, he took part in the first immunization campaign to resume in Somalia since COVID-19 arrived in the country. All children who took part in the campaign were offered deworming tablets and vitamin A in addition to measles and polio vaccines. Delivering multiple services is crucial in the context of ongoing polio and measles outbreaks in Somalia, and low overall population immunity.

Read more about integrated polio and measles campaigns in Somalia

Dr Samreen Khalil, Polio Eradication Officer in Pakistan

Dr Samreen Khalil, WHO Polio Eradication Officer

Dr Samreen Khalil, WHO Polio Eradication Officer, collects a sample from Muhammad Shabir at his residence in order to test for COVID-19 on 10 July 2020 in Peshawar, Pakistan. ©WHO/Saiyna Bashir

Polio teams in Pakistan have been working to support the COVID-19 response since the beginning of the pandemic, as well as continuing with their work to eradicate polio.

In Peshawar, the team has adapted existing acute flaccid paralysis (AFP) surveillance networks embedded in hospitals and health facilities to detect COVID-19 as well as polio. Polio staff like Dr Samreen Khalil have been helping with testing and have trained health workers on infection prevention and control. Polio data management systems across the country and a call centre in the capital, Islamabad, assist in addressing misinformation and helping to detect suspected COVID-19 cases.

Watch this video to learn more about how polio teams supported Pakistan’s COVID-19 response.

Polio vaccination campaigns resumed in July 2020 in Angola

Polio vaccination campaigns resumed in July 2020 in Angola. ©WHO/Angola

Dr Sylvester Maleghemi, Polio Team Lead in South Sudan

In the African region, the polio eradication programme has a long history of responding to other disease outbreaks and health emergencies. With its unmatched technical expertise, disease surveillance and logistics capacities as well as wide community networks, the polio team was perfectly placed to mobilise a large-scale emergency response to COVID-19, while maintaining polio eradication efforts.

Dr Sylvester Maleghemi, WHO Polio Team Lead in South Sudan, explains, “Across Africa, polio infrastructure and staff are found at district, province, all the way to the national level, so whenever there’s an outbreak, polio teams are always the first to respond.”

As the pandemic progresses, polio staff and resources across the globe continue to tackle COVID-19, while pushing to rid the world of all forms of polio, close the immunity gap, and contribute towards universal health coverage.

Read more about Africa’s polio infrastructure

Pakistan resumed polio vaccination activities on 20 July

Pakistan resumed polio vaccination activities on 20 July with a campaign in select districts after a four-month suspension of all polio vaccination activities due to COVID-19 pandemic. Districts included in the first round were Faisalabad, Attock, South Waziristan, and parts of Karachi and Quetta with a target to vaccinate almost 800,000 children under the age of five. ©UNICEF/Pakistan

Exceptional support from the global donor community and the immense efforts of health workers, parents and local leaders have brought us 99% of the way to eradicating polio worldwide. On World Polio Day, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, of which the WHO is a leading partner, would like to thank everyone dedicated to delivering a polio-free world.  

More on the Global Polio Eradication Initiative and WHO’s work to end polio.

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