A mass vaccination drive against polio in Southern Africa started Monday, targeting 23 million children under the age of five in the countries of Malawi, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Mozambique.
The World Health Organization’s Country office in Tanzania expressed readiness to undertake the vaccination drive following an outbreak of wild poliovirus type 1 which Malawi declared on 17 February—the first such case in the country in 30 years.
“In support of Malawi and it neighbours, we are acting fast to halt this outbreak and extinguish the threat through effective vaccinations,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organization’s Regional Director for Africa.
Wild poliovirus type 1 spreads from person-to-person through faecal matter taken into the mouth via contaminated food or fingers.
More than 80 million doses of bivalent Oral Polio Vaccine will be administered to children in a four-round vaccination drive. This comes two years since Africa was certified free of indigenous wild poliovirus.
“Polio is a highly infectious and an untreatable disease that can result in permanent paralysis,’’ said Moeti, explaining that the first phase of the vaccination drive targets 9.4 million children in Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia, with three rounds starting in April, June and July which will include Zimbabwe.
The outbreak in Malawi was reported after a child under five years developed acute paralysis, triggering concerns of a major outbreak in the country and across borders.
Through gene sequencing, scientists found the case in Malawi to be genetically linked to samples from a case detected in 2020 in Sindh, a province of Pakistan.
Currently, wild poliovirus is endemic in two countries: Pakistan and Afghanistan, and according to experts, the detection of the virus in Malawi is a wakeup call about the risk of continuous international spread of the disease.
“After a polio case was reported in Malawi, vaccination is needed to safeguard Tanzania and Africa’s achievement in eradicating polio,’’ wrote WHO Tanzania.