Polio fears rise after coronavirus pandemic halts global eradication effort

Vaccination drives suspended to prevent Covid-19 spread among health workers and communities

A health worker gives a polio vaccine to a child in Lahore, Pakistan, Monday, March 16, 2020. Pakistan government launched an anti-polio vaccination campaign in an effort to eradicate the crippling disease affected children. (AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary)
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Health officials are braced for an increase in polio cases after the global vaccination programme to eradicate the crippling disease was suspended because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Polio workers are being taken off door-to-door vaccination campaigns to protect them from contracting Covid-19 and are being reassigned to tackle the spread of coronavirus that causes the deadly new respiratory disease.

The Geneva-based Global Polio Eradication Initiative announced the ban last week. Vaccination operations in Pakistan, the country worst affected by polio, have been suspended until at least June, although officials expect the pause could be extended.

The quickly worsening Covid-19 pandemic has dealt an unprecedented blow to the long-running global campaign to eradicate the poliovirus, forcing vaccination campaigns to be suspended for the first time in three decades.

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Coronavirus in the Middle East

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Pakistan's extensive polio surveillance network, built up over years, is now being reassigned to detect cases of the pneumonia-causing coronavirus.

The suspension comes as Pakistan has been trying to overhaul its massive polio campaign after a painful 18 months which have seen cases soar. Factional infighting and a failure to overcome public suspicion have been blamed for undermining the campaign and allowing cases to jump from 12 in 2018 to 146 in 2019. There have already been 36 polio cases this year.

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Definitely at some point we are going to have a boom of reported cases.

Pakistan and neighbouring Afghanistan are the only two countries where people can still catch the wild strain of the virus, although there have been outbreaks elsewhere from strains linked to mutated vaccine.

In Afghanistan, hundreds of thousands of children have been left vulnerable to the poliovirus as a result of an ongoing Taliban ban on door-to-door vaccination campaigns. The insurgents, who hold sway over almost half the country, accuse vaccination teams of acting as spies to gather intelligence for air strikes.

The pause in vaccinations will increase the numbers at risk.

"Cases will go up, there's not enough herd immunity," a World Health Organisation official told The National.

Cases of other vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles are also expected to rise as general immunisation centres in Pakistan and Afghanistan are closed.

Dennis Chimenya, spokesman for Unicef's polio programme in Pakistan, said workers hoped they had turned the corner with Pakistan's troubled programme. National vaccination sweeps in December and February had been judged successes. But now April's sweep has been cancelled, officials are preparing for an increase in cases later in the year.

“Definitely at some point we are going to have a boom of reported cases. It's really a bad development,” he said.

Sona Bari, a spokeswoman for the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, said house-to-house campaigns had been paused for the safety of workers and local people.

Polio staff would continue to monitor polio disease levels and develop vaccines “and very importantly be prepared to fire up campaigns as soon as safely possible, given that we can expect vaccine-preventable disease to rise”.

The World Health Organisation's Michel Zaffran, who heads GPEI, last week said he was “devastated” to have to stop operations.

The GPEI has come tantalisingly close to wiping out polio since it was set up in 1988 at a time when the disease paralysed about 1,000 children each day. Officials estimate that worldwide, more than 10 billion doses of polio drops have been given, saving some 6.5 million children from paralysis. Yet despite the progress, the disease is proving stubbornly hard to stamp out and officials have been concerned by the recent spread of small clusters of disease traced to a strain of mutated vaccine.

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