Brazzaville — Burkina Faso today concluded a four-day mass polio immunization campaign, vaccinating 174 304 children under five years of age in two districts of the country's Centre-East region while observing COVID-19 infection prevention and control measures.
The campaign is the first to be conducted since the government suspended all mass immunization on 27 March due to the COVID-19 pandemic to comply with the physical distancing guidelines to curb transmission of the virus.
As immunization campaigns resume, World Health Organization (WHO) teams at both regional and country offices have developed guidance for countries and frontline workers to ensure their safety and that of the children and their families.
All vaccinators and health care workers involved have been trained on maintaining physical distancing while conducting the vaccination. Additionally, a total of 41 250 masks, as well as 200 litres of hand sanitizers, were made available through the COVID-19 Committee in country to the 2000 frontline workers who took part in the immunization campaign.
While mass immunizations were suspended, health facilities were still operating, offering routine vaccination services. However, parents and caregivers expressed some hesitation to vaccinate their children for fear of contracting COVID-19, leading to a 10% drop in vaccination rates, according to WHO teams in the country.
"We cannot wait for the COVID-19 pandemic to be contained to resume immunization activities. If we stop immunization for too long, including for polio, vaccine-preventable diseases will have a detrimental effect on children's health across the region," said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa.
"The campaigns run by the Polio Eradication Programme demonstrate that mass immunization can be safely conducted under the strict implementation of COVID-19 infection prevention and control guidelines," added Dr Moeti.
Burkina Faso received its wild poliovirus-free status in 2015 yet is currently one of 15 countries in the African Region which are experiencing outbreaks of circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus, a rare form of the virus that affects unimmunized and under-immunized populations living in areas with inadequate sanitation and low levels of polio immunization.
As of 27 June, the country's disease surveillance system had detected 10 cases of circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus transmission in the districts of Ouargaye, Bittou, Bogodogo, Kaya, Tougouri, Signoghin, Saponé and Dori, requiring an urgent response.
"Suspending immunization activities, even though necessary to protect frontline workers and the community, has derailed our response to circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus. However, our teams have been working non-stop across the region to ensure that in addition to supporting the COVID-19 response, we continue essential disease surveillance and plan for the resumption of polio outbreak response once the situation permits," said Dr Pascal Mkanda, Coordinator of WHO Polio Eradication Programme in the African Region.
The WHO African Region set up an inter-agency Rapid Response Team in September 2019 to mobilise responses to circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus outbreaks in the region within 72 hours. Campaigns involve conducting three rounds of immunization campaigns in affected areas within three months, with the first round conducted within the first 14 days. The Rapid Response Team has succeeded in ending three outbreaks in Kenya, Mozambique and Niger.
From 10 to 13 July, Angola is planning a polio vaccination campaign, targeting 1,287,717 children under five years of age. The campaign staff of 14,742 will include 4,309 vaccinators. Like Burkina Faso, strict infection prevention control measures are in place, including the distribution of 90,000 masks and 23,000 sanitizers of 500ml from the country Ministry of Health.
Note to editors
Polio is a viral disease, that is transmitted from person to person, mainly through a faecal-oral route or, less frequently, through contaminated water or food, and multiplies inside the intestines.
While there is no cure for polio, the disease can be prevented through the administration of a simple and effective vaccine. That is why efforts are underway across every country to rapidly boost immunity levels in children and protect them from polio paralysis.
No wild poliovirus has been detected anywhere in Africa since 2016. This stands in stark contrast to 1996, a year when wild poliovirus paralysed more than 75,000 children across every country on the continent. The Africa Regional Certification Commission (ARCC), the independent commission designated to certify the eradication of wild poliovirus in the WHO African Region is expected to certify the region free of wild poliovirus in August 2020.
About circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus in the African Region
Vaccine-derived polioviruses are rare, but these viruses affect unimmunized and under-immunized populations living in areas with inadequate sanitation and low levels of polio immunization. When children are immunized with the oral polio vaccine, the attenuated vaccine virus replicates in their intestines for a short time to build up the needed immunity and is then excreted in the faeces into the environment where it can mutate. If polio immunization coverage remains low in a community and sanitation remains inadequate, the mutated viruses will be transmitted to susceptible populations, leading to the emergence of vaccine-derived polioviruses.
Angola, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Côte d'Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Togo and Zambia are challenged by weak routine vaccination coverage, vaccine refusal, difficult access to some locations and low-quality vaccination campaigns, as well as security challenges, which have made immunization of all children difficult.