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Coronavirus: 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, 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.

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.

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.

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.

Distributed by APO Group on behalf of World Health Organization (WHO).


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