Brazzaville — Expertise in polio eradication that has put Africa on the verge of being certified free of wild poliovirus has been brought to the frontlines of COVID-19 fight. A network of responders from the World Health Organization (WHO) Polio Eradication Programme and partner organizations is providing critical resources and skills to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.
While testing is the core of any strategy to contain the virus, the region has had a relatively low number of tests performed. Since the outbreak started, nearly two million tests have been carried out in the WHO African Region, with an average test rate of 15.3 per 10 000 population. To boost diagnosis, the WHO-coordinated polio laboratory network comprising 16 laboratories in 15 countries is now dedicating 50% of its capacity to COVID-19 testing. Hundreds of tests are carried out every day using polio testing machines in Algeria, Cameroon, Cote d'Ivoire, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa.
"In Africa, no one has the footprint of the polio programme nor the expertise for mounting effective response campaigns. So with COVID-19 threatening to overwhelm health systems, the extensive polio response network is once again lending crucial support as countries build up systems to contain COVID-19," said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO Regional Director for Africa.
Contact tracing has been a central pillar of the WHO polio programme's support to the COVID-19 response. Mobile phone applications originally developed for health workers to use in polio outbreak response and disease surveillance have been adapted by WHO to be used against COVID-19. In Zimbabwe, for example, over 100 disease surveillance officers are using these tools for case investigations and contact tracing in many provinces where COVID-19 has been confirmed.
In addition, WHO Geographic Information System (GIS) centre in Brazzaville - which was opened in 2017 to support the polio programme with adapted technologies and data management - is using its huge experience in outbreak response and disease surveillance to support countries with a range of GIS and software technology and manual solutions to respond to COVID-19. The GIS team is now working around the clock supporting countries to take up the technology for COVID-19 response.
More than 2000 polio response experts from WHO, UNICEF, Rotary, as well as STOP consultants from the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are supporting the COVID-19 response in the African Region. A quarter of WHO polio staff are dedicating more than 80% of their time towards COVID-19 efforts, with 65% anticipating a commitment of six months or more.
Alongside the support to the COVID-19 response, WHO polio staff are also maintaining critical functions and planning to resume mass polio immunization campaigns once the situation permits.
"It is important that the support to COVID-19 response does not jeopardize the progress made in stopping all forms of polio transmission in the region. The fight against the pandemic should not come at the detriment of other health emergencies," said Dr Moeti.
Across the continent, COVID-19 has disrupted mass polio vaccination campaigns inline with the global physical distancing recommendations that limit COVID-19 transmission. The suspension of high-quality immunization rounds may risk new polio outbreaks due to low coverage.