Although the African Region was certified free of wild poliovirus one year ago, after four years without a case, outbreaks of a vaccine-derived poliovirus (cVDPV) is spreading throughout communities where too few children have received the polio vaccine, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Thursday.
Vaccine-derived poliovirus is a weakened strain of the virus that has changed over time and behaves more like the naturally occurring poliovirus.
At a dedicated meeting on polio, Governments from the WHO African Region committed to ending all remaining forms of polio and presented a scorecard to track progress towards its eradication.
Since 2018, 23 countries in the region have experienced outbreaks and more than half of the global 1071 cVDPV cases were recorded in Africa.
Cases increased last year partly because of disruptions to polio vaccination campaigns caused by COVID-19, according to WHO.
Tools and tactics to stop outbreaks
Countries at the meeting discussed how they will begin implementing the new Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) 2022-2026 Strategy, which was launched in June to urgently stop the spread of cVDPVs.
Tactics and tools include advancing the speed and quality of outbreak response, such as through the rapid deployment of WHO surge staff; improving polio vaccine uptake by integrating polio campaigns to reach children who have never been vaccinated; and broadening the rollout of the novel oral polio vaccine type 2 (nOPV2), a new tool that could more sustainably end outbreaks of the most prevalent type 2 cVDPV.
To date, six countries in Africa have rolled out this vaccine with close to 40 million children vaccinated and no concerns for safety noted.
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Ministers have also committed to regularly reviewing progress via the scorecard, which will track the timely implementation of high-quality polio outbreak response, introduce the novel oral polio vaccine type 2 (nOPV2) for broader use and transition polio assets into national health systems in a strategic, phased approach.
“Our success in ending wild poliovirus in the region shows what is possible when we work together with urgency”, said WHO Regional Director for Africa Matshidiso Moeti.
Since July 2020, almost 100 million African children have been vaccinated against polio.
While COVID-19 threatened this success, Dr. Moeti argued that it was possible to “overcome the final hurdles. We have the know-how, but it must be backed by committed resources to reach all under-vaccinated communities”.
Also discussed at the meeting supporting immunization and disease surveillance once polio is eradicated, which will be achieved by transitioning polio infrastructure into countries’ health systems.
The polio programme has a history of supporting the response to emerging health threats in the region, including Ebola and COVID-19, and half of polio surge staff are currently helping countries with COVID-19 surveillance, contact tracing and community engagement.
Dr. Tunji Funsho, chair of Rotary’s National PolioPlus Committee, Nigeria called for increased political and financial commitment by Governments and partners to “not only curb outbreaks swiftly, but to also scale up vaccination coverage and give children lasting protection against this preventable disease”.