In late February this year, Malawi recorded its first case of wild Polio in 30 years when a three year old girl was confirmed to have been infected by the wild polio virus, making it the first case of the disease in Malawi and the first in Africa since 2020.
Tanzania being one of the borderline countries is now running a mass vaccination program spearheaded by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and other key health stakeholders.
In a one-on-one interview with Your Health, the country representative for UNICEF, Shalini Bahuguna unfolds the details surrounding the Polio virus and preventive measures in place that will assist in maintaining the polio free status in the country.
Lilian: What is the situation of Polio in Tanzania?
Shalini: Tanzania has been Polio-free since 2015 due to the strong immunization program in the country. In fact Tanzania has not detected a Polio virus case since 1996 however in February 17, 2022 we were informed of a wild Polio case identified in a three year old girl who lives in Lulongwe district, Malawi.
This breakout in the neighbouring country was declared after a paralyzed child was confirmed to be infected. It must be remembered that polio anywhere is a threat to children everywhere since infected individuals can shed poliovirus into the environment for several weeks where it can spread rapidly through a community especially areas with poor sanitation.
With the purpose to mitigate the outbreak in Malawi, a global rapid response that is made by a team of experts conducted a rapid assessment and recommended a national wide Polio vaccination campaign to all children under the age of five years in countries bordering Malawi, Tanzania being one of them.
Q: For the past two years there have been reports of polio cases in the neighbouring countries. What is your take on this and where does Tanzania stand in protecting our children?
A: Yes, there has been a report of a circulating Polio wild virus globally and this puts our children at risk of being infected with Polio viruses. To respond to this situation, Tanzania with support from partners, has been strengthening the delivery of routine Polio vaccination that has been maintained at the rate of 95 percent.
At the same time, a surveillance program for polio disease is implemented across the country to ensure early detection of the poliovirus infection.
Q: Polio was considered a disease already under control, what has happened that we have this threat again?
A: Currently, only two countries globally; Afghanistan and Pakistan have continued to experience polio transmission, however Polio can and does spread which explains how it has been found in Malawi. It is neither restricted by borders nor does it respect social classes as it travels with ease.
Q: Why is polio a dangerous disease and what causes it?
A: Polio, also known as Poliomyelitis is a disabling and life threatening disease caused by the Poliovirus. This virus spreads from one person to another and it can invade an infected person’s spinal cord causing paralysis.
It mostly attacks children under the age of five years and those living in areas with poor sanitation. It can lead to paralysis of limbs, causing permanent disability and sometimes death. Children mostly contract this disease when they drink water contaminated with the faeces of someone who carries the virus.
Q: Why is it that to date there, is no cure for polio despite high advancement in the medical field?
A: Indeed, there is no cure for Polio as it can only be prevented by immunization that is conducted by Oral Polio Vaccine (OPV) or Inactivated Polio Vaccine (IPV).
The nature of the virus and the way it affects the spinal cord makes it difficult to develop a cure for this disease despite the present advanced medical sciences. Even though the world does not have a cure yet, we have a very strong preventive system, Tanzania is a good example of that.
Q: Do we have enough Polio vaccines in Tanzania to address the need?
A: Yes, the government immunization program is strong. As we are talking, about 95 percent of children in the country have been routinely vaccinated and Tanzania now has enough stock of the Polio vaccine to meet the need for six months with a minimum stock level recommended by World health Organization (WHO). With the good distribution mechanisms in place, these stocks will be supplied to the particular health centres as required.
Q: What role does UNICEF play to ensure Tanzania responds to this current threat effectively?
A: In response to the breakout of Polio in Malawi, UNICEF has supported the response planning and deployment of its staff to the Emergency Response Centre (ERC) to ensure a coordinated response at the national level.
More staff have been deployed to Mbeya, Njombe, Songwe and Ruvuma regions to support the implementation of the first round of polio vaccination campaigns in which about 973,542 children under the age of five years will be vaccinated.
This will be followed up by the second round of the campaign which will start in April, targeting at vaccinating 10,310,274 million children in the same age range all over the country.
UNICEF has also trained 2,147 health workers, 5,128 social mobilizers and 538 town criers.
The organization has also facilitated procurement of 3,000 vaccine carriers and 360 cold boxes that are expected to be delivered in April this year for use in the upcoming rounds of campaigns.
The organization is now working closely with the government to ensure that the community is well informed about the response vaccination campaign in the country. We will also influence a social media engagement on the topic to stir conversations around the disease and how it can be prevented.
Q: Considering the current outbreak threat, what age group does the polio vaccine campaign target and why?
A: The age group is all children under five years old because those are the children that are at the highest risk of getting the disease.
Q: If a child is already fully vaccinated will they be vaccinated again during this just launched polio vaccination campaign?
A: Yes, because the only way to fully prevent the country from getting any Polio case is to reinforce the vaccines that were done before. With that said, the vaccination campaign will target all children; the ones that have been vaccinated and the ones that have not. To keep Tanzania Polio-free, we must revaccinate all the children as this will boost immunity in them.
Q: What does UNICEF do to ensure the public is well informed on the current situation and the need to ensure every child gets a polio jab?
A: UNICEF and WHO in collaboration with the respective governments in the four countries bordering Malawi have launched a Polio immunization mass campaign in those countries as we target to vaccinate a total of nine million children under the age of five in those countries during the first round of the campaign which is rolled out in four rounds.
For the first two rounds, UNICEF has procured more than 35 million doses of Polio vaccine in the four countries. Furthermore, UNICEF is working with multiple key stakeholders in developing a multimedia campaign including community sensitization activities.
This campaign will be done house-to-house so that every child can be reached and vaccinated.
Q: How is UNICEF supporting cross border vaccination strategies in Malawi after WHO launched the campaign on Monday this week?
A: UNICEF Tanzania and UNICEF Malawi offices are working closely with respective governments and other partners to facilitate a coordinated planning and implementation of vaccination campaigns in the border areas to ensure that no child is left out. We also support cross border meetings in the regions that are bordering Malawi.
Q: Polio vaccination became easily available because it was administered free of charge. Is this still the case?
A: Yes, Polio vaccine will be provided free of charge in health facilities in Tanzania through support from global agencies in partnership with the government of Tanzania.