For countries that have yet to eradicate polio, the devastation of an epidemic like coronavirus is all too familiar. Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the wild poliovirus remains endemic, are now also grappling with COVID-19 outbreaks, confronting unique challenges as these countries battle both viruses simultaneously.
Given the infrastructure and footprint of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), the organization and its reach are crucial in combating the COVID-19 pandemic. That is why, for the next six months, wherever the polio program has a presence, GPEI is going to deploy their staff, resources, and surveillance and testing capabilities to the frontlines COVID-19 efforts.
Fortunately, polio workers are well-equipped to assist national health services in response to the pandemic.
"This has always been the ‘Plus’ in ‘PolioPlus.’ In other words, the infrastructure built up to eradicate polio regularly helps respond to other disease outbreaks or humanitarian disasters," Oliver Rosenbauer, GPEI spokesperson at WHO, told Global Citizen.
In Pakistan, GPEI has already trained 6,260 health professionals on COVID-19 response, in addition to their existing polio-related duties, and trained over 280 surveillance officers on COVID-19 surveillance. In Afghanistan, field staff are using routine visits to local health facilities to check and report back COVID-19 cases, and health care staff are being trained to respond to the novel coronavirus. In Nigeria, WHO polio program medical staff and field officers are working to mitigate further spread amid multiple COVID-19 outbreaks, pulling insight from years of battling polio. These are just snapshots of GPEI efforts underway in 13 countries that will continue unabated as the virus continues to spread.
GPEI dates back to 1988, when polio paralyzed more than 350,000 children across 125 countries every year. The disease has been reduced by 99% — more than 18 million people are walking today who would otherwise have been paralysed, and more than 1.5 million lives have been saved, according to GPEI.
But the COVID-19 outbreak threatens that life-saving progress.
"Given that operationally, polio vaccination campaigns are close-contact activities, they are incompatible with the current physical distancing recommendations associated with the COVID-19 response efforts," Rosenbauer said.
That is why GPEI has had to temporarily delay immunization campaigns.
Unfortunately, Rosenbauer fears that there could be a re-emergence and further spread in countries that have yet to eradicate wild poliovirus.
To mitigate the spread and preserve crucial progress made, GPEI will continue its polio surveillance activities to monitor the evolution of the situation and return in full force to eradication efforts as soon as it is safe to do so.
A silver lining, GPEI said, is that people are less mobile amid the pandemic, with many borders restricted or closed all together.
"This could mean that perhaps the risk of spread might be slightly alleviated. However, that is purely conjecture and really the priority is to resume vaccinations as rapidly as the situation safely allows," Rosenbauer said.
Rightfully so, he says that all eyes are on the coronavirus pandemic, but that doesn’t mean we can turn a blind eye to other ongoing crises.
"We must not forget that as long as children in Pakistan are at risk of polio paralysis, and if we do not finish the job, then all children in the world, wherever they live, could one day be affected by polio," he said. "It is therefore also critical that all necessary resources are mobilised, so that the emergency operational plans are rapidly and efficiently implemented once the program resumes operations."