Monday 6 June
Arrive Kabul at 9.30am, my first visit in two years and the city has lost none of its bustle.
A review team last visited here in 2016 but access was limited. Much has changed – both within Afghanistan and for polio – since then. The programme now has access across the country and the epidemiological picture has changed dramatically. In 2020, 56 children were paralysed by the virus. So far this year only one child has been paralysed giving Afghanistan its strongest chance yet of interrupting polio transmission.
Surveillance underpins the eradication of any virus. For polio, it consists of monitoring for signs of Acute Flaccid Paralysis or AFP in children under 15 years, and collecting samples of sewage, what we call environmental surveillance, to check for the presence of the virus in the community.
We’re here to apply a magnifying glass to Afghanistan’s surveillance system, to see if there’s anywhere the virus might still be hiding and recommend adjustments to make sure the system is capable of catching it.
If polio surveillance is about gathering data and documenting it meticulously, it’s even more so for a surveillance review. Our job includes checking documents and records, interviewing health workers and families of children with AFP, reviewing guidelines and standard operating procedures – checking and rechecking data.
Wednesday 8 June
After meetings yesterday, including briefing the National Emergency Operation Center (EOC), the operational heart of the polio programme here, I head to Herat in the country’s west where my first stop is the WHO office. I meet the polio team before moving on to the Regional EOC where we discuss the objectives of my mission. I review records before checking the cold room where vaccines are kept. There’s a corner for stool specimens that come in from the western region. Part of the process of checking children with signs of AFP is collecting stool samples that are then sent to the regional laboratory in Pakistan for testing. Reviewing the collection, storage and shipping of these samples is part of my remit as a reviewer.
Thursday 9 June
At a hospital in Herat city, I meet with the AFP focal point – a pediatrician. All major health facilities have an AFP focal point who acts as the link between the facility and the broader surveillance system. I ask him about his background, the facility’s stool handling, preparation and shipment, and the work of the hospital.
In the afternoon, I examine two children affected by AFP earlier in the year. I talk to their parents and ask them the same questions they were asked by the initial investigating surveillance officer. I do this to check the accuracy of the information collected during the original case investigation and to see if there are any discrepancies.
Friday 10 June
Friday – the only holiday of the week. I spend it at the WHO office going through documents including AFP case files and data. It’s also a good opportunity to enter all the information I collected over the previous two days into the online tool developed specifically for this review.
Saturday 11 June
We set out early to a district near the border with Iran, two hours’ drive away. First stop is a very busy Comprehensive Health Center (CHC). It’s reported six out of the eight AFP cases from this district this year. I meet with the director, doctors, nurses, and other staff. Beneath their facemasks, their smiles are beaming. They speak with pride of their clinic and, like all the health facilities I visit, it’s spotlessly clean.
In the afternoon, I meet with the community health supervisor who oversees 16 community health workers (CHWs) working in village health posts nearby. Village health posts play an important role in community-based polio surveillance. I review the curriculum and training agenda to check what information is captured.
Sunday 12 June
I spend the day in the districts surrounding Herat city. My meetings include a visit to a traditional healer who fixes broken bones among other ailments, and a CHW who is an imam at a local mosque. Both are reporting volunteers in the 46,000-strong community-based surveillance network that keeps an eye out for polio among their communities.
Monday 13 June
I visit an environmental surveillance site in Herat city. Samples are taken from sewage on a regular basis and shipped to the lab in Pakistan to determine the presence of poliovirus. I assess the site to see if it meets quality standards, check its location to make sure it’s in the right place to catch a good enough sample, the flow of the water and its appearance. I watch as trained staff from the local municipality collect a sample to determine whether the SOPs are adhered to.
Tuesday 14 June
To neighbouring Farah province, a round trip of about eight hours. At a CHC, a boy is brought in who was referred by a local faith healer. I observe the staff examine the child, and then visit the faith healer who tells me he inherited the knowledge of healing from his father and has been doing it now for over 20 years. It was heartening to hear him talk of his collaboration with the polio team for both AFP surveillance and immunization campaigns.
Wednesday 15 June
Last day in Herat city and I debrief the team in the REOC. Our flight back to Kabul departs late and we stop in Bamyan in the central highlands to collect two other passengers, including my fellow reviewer assigned to the Central Region.
The rest of the review team makes its way back to Kabul in the remaining days. We’ve all been doing the same thing – verifying, checking, interviewing, collating data. Our next task is to compile our report and provide any recommendations to the programme to make sure Afghanistan’s polio surveillance system catches every last virus, no matter where it may be hiding.
Wild poliovirus transmission in Afghanistan is currently at its lowest level in history. Fifty six children were paralysed by wild polio in 2020. In 2021, the number fell to four. This year to date, only one child has been paralysed, giving the country an extraordinary opportunity to end polio.
The resumption of nationwide polio vaccination campaigns targeting 9.9 million children has been a critical step. Since 2018, local-level bans on polio vaccination activities in some districts controlled by the Taliban had significantly reduced the programme’s ability to vaccinate every child across the country. With access to the entire country following the August transition, seven nationwide vaccination campaigns took place between November 2021 and June 2022, and a sub national campaign targeting 6.7 million children in 28 provinces took place in July. Of the 3.6 million children who had been inaccessible to the programme, 2.6 million were reached during the November, December and January campaigns. With improved reach to previously inaccessible children throughout the February to July campaigns, the number children has been reduced to 0.7 million. Further campaigns are planned for the remainder of the year.
With Afghanistan and Pakistan sharing one epidemiological block, the two countries continue to coordinate cross border activities. December and May’s campaigns were synchronized with Pakistan’s national campaigns, focusing on high risk populations including nomadic groups, seasonal workers and communities straddling both borders.
Improved access also had a significant impact on polio surveillance activities. Afghanistan’s surveillance indicators remained above global standards throughout the transition. With access to all districts since August, the quality of activities has improved significantly including early case detection and reporting.
In June, the first review of the polio surveillance system in six years took place with WHO hosting a team of technical experts including epidemiologists and virologists. A small team visited in 2016 but insecurity and lack of access to much of the country limited the visitors’ movements to Kabul, Herat, Kandahar, Jalalabad, Mazar-e-sharif and Kunduz. This year, the 16-strong team visited 76 districts across 25 of the country’s 34 provinces. The review determined the likelihood of undetected poliovirus transmission in Afghanistan to be low. Recommendations, including upscaling surveillance in the country’s south and south east, are being implemented.
With more than twenty years on the ground in Afghanistan, the polio programme continues to leverage its extensive operational capacity to deliver better health outcomes for all Afghans. In the face of an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, in addition to day-to-day polio activities, polio staff continue to regularly monitor the functionality of health facilities across the country as well as support ongoing vaccination campaigns including measles and COVID 19. WHO’s polio team in the southeast were among the first responders following the devastating earthquake in Paktika and Khost provinces in June. In addition to providing critical health care, the team’s experience working among local communities provided the foundations of an assessment tool that mapped affected communities and ensured accurate data guided a focused response in the immediate aftermath.
Although the number of children paralysed by polio has reduced significantly in Afghanistan, the threat is far from gone and the programme faces significant challenges. While access has improved across the country, accessing every child though house to house vaccination remains a challenge in some areas leaving immunity gaps and, with them, children at risk.
On 24 February, eight polio workers were killed in targeted attacks in the country’s north, not the first time polio workers had come under attack in the course of their life saving work. Four of those killed were women. Female polio workers play a critical role in the programme, building community trust and reaching all children.
The sharp rise in the number of wild polio cases in Pakistan is a cause for concern, and the detection of one case each in Malawi and Mozambique is a reminder of the continued risks of poliovirus and the urgencyrequired to permanently interrupt transmission in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
While the polio programme has made important progress in the last 12 months, sustaining those gains with high quality campaigns that vaccinate all children and build enough immunity to end circulation of the virus for good is critical. A polio free Afghanistan is within reach – but there is still a long way to go.
Development and Health Ministers of the G7 countries met in Berlin, Germany, last week to hold urgent joint consultations on “supporting vaccine equity and pandemic preparedness in developing countries”. The joint group highlighted the need to accelerate equitable and sustainable access to vaccines everywhere, and to strengthen pandemic preparedness and response in low- and middle-income countries. At the same time, however, the meeting cautioned against letting global crises interfere with other development and public health priorities and urged continued support for existing efforts, including global polio eradication.
The global effort to eradicate polio is a clear and concrete example of the value of working in close integration with other development and public health efforts, and contribute to global pandemic preparedness and response. Polio staff continue to contribute to the COVID-19 pandemic response and immunization recovery efforts, together with the introduction and roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines.
In April 2022, GPEI partners, led by WHO Director-General, launched the ‘Investment Case for Polio Eradication’, the sister document to the Polio Eradication Strategy 2022-2026, which lays out the economic and humanitarian rationale for investing in a polio-free world, as well as the broader benefits of polio eradication.
In October 2022, Germany will generously co-host a global pledging moment, giving the international development community the opportunity to publicly re-commit to this effort, including to support a stronger and sustainably-funded WHO, so that the organization can maintain its capacity to support countries in achieving and sustaining polio eradication, and continue to benefit broader public health efforts, including support for pandemic preparedness and response.
In this two-part video series, we chat with Dr Ananda Bandyopadhyay, Deputy Director of Polio Technology, Research & Analytics, BMGF, about the new tool in GPEI’s kit to combat cVDPV2: novel oral polio vaccine type 2 (nOPV2).
Today, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) announced that it is seeking new commitments to fund its 2022-2026 Strategy at a virtual event to launch its investment case. The strategy, if fully funded, will see the vaccination of 370 million children annually for the next five years and the continuation of global surveillance activities for polio and other diseases in 50 countries.
During the virtual launch, the Government of Germany, which holds the G7 presidency in 2022, announced that the country will co-host the pledging moment for the GPEI Strategy during the 2022 World Health Summit in October.
“A strong and fully funded polio programme will benefit health systems around the world. That is why it is so crucial that all stakeholders now commit to ensuring that the new eradication strategy can be implemented in full,” said Niels Annen, Parliamentary State Secretary to the Federal Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development, Germany. “The polio pledging moment at the World Health Summit this October is a critical opportunity for donors and partners to reiterate their support for a polio-free world. We can only succeed if we make polio eradication our shared priority.”
Wild poliovirus cases are at a historic low and the disease is endemic in just Pakistan and Afghanistan, presenting a unique opportunity to interrupt transmission. However, recent developments, due in part to impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, underscore the fragility of this progress. In February 2022, Malawi confirmed its first case of wild polio in three decades and the first on the African continent since 2016, linked to virus originating in Pakistan, and in April 2022 Pakistan recorded its first wild polio case since January 2021. Meanwhile, outbreaks of cVDPV, variants of the poliovirus that can emerge in under-immunized communities, were recently detected in Israel and Ukraine and circulate in several countries in Africa and Asia.
The investment case outlines new modelling that shows achieving eradication could save an estimated US $33.1 billion this century, compared to the price of controlling polio outbreaks. At the launch event, GPEI leaders and polio-affected countries urged renewed political and financial support to end polio and protect children and future generations from the paralysis it causes.
“Despite enormous progress, polio still paralyses far too many children around the world – and even one child is too many,” said UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell. “We simply cannot allow another child to suffer from this devastating disease – not when we know how to prevent it. Not when we are so close. We must do whatever it takes to finish the fight – and achieve a polio-free world for every child.”
“The re-emergence of polio in Malawi after three decades was a tragic reminder that until polio is wiped off the face of the earth, it can spread globally and harm children anywhere. I urge all countries to unite behind the Global Polio Eradication Initiative and ensure it has the support and resources it needs to end polio for everyone everywhere,” said Hon. Khumbize Kandodo Chiponda MP, Minister of Health, Malawi.
The new eradication strategy centres on integrating polio activities with other essential health programs in affected countries, better reaching children in the highest risk communities who have never been vaccinated, andstrengthening engagement with local leaders and influencers to build trust and vaccine acceptance.
“The children of Pakistan and Afghanistan deserve to live a life free of an incurable, paralyzing disease. With continued global support, we can make polio a disease of the past,” said Dr Shahzad Baig, National Coordinator, Pakistan Polio Eradication Programme. “The polio programme is also working to increase overall health equity in the highest-risk communities by addressing area needs holistically, including by strengthening routine immunization, improving health facilities, and organizing health camps.”
The investment case outlines how support for eradication efforts will enable essential health services in under-served communities and strengthen the world’s defences against future health threats.
Since 2020, GPEI infrastructure and staff have provided critical support to governments as they respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, including by promoting COVID-safe practices, leveraging polio surveillance and lab networks to detect the virus, and assisting COVID-19 vaccination efforts through health worker trainings, community mobilization, data management and other activities.
“The global effort to consign polio to the history books will not only help to spare future generations from this devastating disease, but serve to strengthen health systems and health security,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General.
“We have the knowledge and tools to wipe polio off the face of the earth. GPEI needs the resources to take us the last mile to eradicating this awful disease. Investing in GPEI will also help us detect and respond to other health emergencies. We can’t waver now. Let’s all take this opportunity to fully support GPEI, and create a world in which no child is paralyzed by polio ever again,” said Bill Gates, Co-chair, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
“An investment in polio eradication goes further than fighting one disease. It is the ultimate investment in both equity and sustainability – it is for everyone and forever. An important component of GPEI’s Strategy focuses on integrating the planning and coordination of polio activities and essential health services to reach zero-dose children who have never been immunized with routine vaccines, therefore contributing to the goals of the Immunization Agenda 2030.” said Seth Berkley, Chief Executive Officer, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.
“Twenty million people are walking today because of polio vaccination, and we have learned, improved and innovated along the way. We are stronger and more resilient as we enter the last lap of this marathon to protect all future generations of the world’s children from polio. Please join us; with our will and our collective resources, we can seize the unprecedented opportunity to cross the finish line that lies before us,” said Mike McGovern, Chair, International PolioPlus Committee, Rotary International.
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April 2022 – Convening this month in Geneva, Switzerland, the Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on immunization (SAGE), the global advisory body to the World Health Organization (WHO) on all things immunization, urged concerted action to finish wild polioviruses once and for all.
The group, reviewing the global wild poliovirus epidemiology, highlighted the unique opportunity, given current record low levels of this strain. At the same time, it noted the continuing risks, highlighted in particular by detection of wild poliovirus in Malawi in February, linked to wild poliovirus originating in Pakistan.
On circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus (cVDPV) outbreaks, SAGE expressed concern at continuing transmission, in particular in Nigeria which now accounts for close to 90% of all global cVDPV type 2 cases, as well as the situation in Ukraine, and its disruption to health services, urging for strengthening of immunization and surveillance across Europe. It also noted the recent detection of cVDPV type 3 in Israel in children, and in environmental samples in occupied Palestinian territories, and urged high-quality vaccination activities and strengthened surveillance.
Preparing for the post-certification era, the group underscored the importance of global cessation of all live, attenuated oral polio vaccine (OPV) use from routine immunization, planned one year after global certification of wild poliovirus eradication. To ensure appropriate planning, coordination and implementation, the group endorsed the establishment of an ‘OPV Cessation Team’, to consist of wider-than-GPEI stakeholder participation and ensure leadership on all aspects of OPV cessation.
SAGE will continue to review available evidence and best practices on a broad range of GPEI-related programmatic interventions, including as relevant the increasing role of inactivated polio vaccine (IPV), including in outbreak response and effects of novel oral polio vaccine type 2 (nOPV2), as part of global efforts to secure a lasting world free of all forms of poliovirus.
After the safe and successful rollout of nationwide polio campaigns since November 2021, we have received tragic news that 8 health workers at the forefront have been killed this morning in a series of shootings in Takhar and Kunduz in northeast Afghanistan. The vaccination campaign has been suspended in both provinces.
A statement has been issued by the Regional Director of WHO’s Eastern Mediterranean Region, Dr Ahmed Al-Mandhari, as well as by the United Nations in the country, condemning these attacks, expressing condolences to the families and underscoring that the provision of health and the safety of healthworkers at the forefront are paramount, and must be kept neutral to any geo-political situation anywhere.
Our thoughts and prayers are both with the families and our teams on the ground at this time.
Cairo, 10 February 2022 – The fourth meeting of the Regional Subcommittee on Polio Eradication and Outbreaks was convened on Wednesday 9 February, by WHO’s Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean Dr Ahmed Al-Mandhari. The meeting was attended by health ministers or their representatives from Djibouti, Egypt, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.
The Subcommittee declared the ongoing circulation of any strain of poliovirus in the Region to be a regional public health emergency and called on all authorities to enable uninterrupted access to the youngest and most vulnerable children through the resumption of house-to-house vaccination campaigns. It issued statements on wild poliovirus circulation in Afghanistan and Pakistan and on the circulation of vaccine-derived poliovirus strains in Yemen, where limits on house-to-house vaccination are preventing access to the most vulnerable children.
The spread of polio in the Eastern Mediterranean Region is a pressing emergency and it remains a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) under the International Health Regulations (IHR 2005).
Members noted a sharp decrease in cases of wild poliovirus in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2021 but warned against complacency.
“Wild poliovirus transmission is at a historic low in the endemic countries of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The progress is remarkable, but it is fragile. The opportunity to end polio is knocking at our door, and we must seize it,” said Dr Al-Mandhari.
Speaking to the progress made in the last year, the Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Health, Dr Faisal Sultan, assured members that the programme in Pakistan was leaving no stone unturned in the pursuit of zero polio transmission.
“We have intensified efforts in the hardest districts and core reservoirs and we are closely monitoring transmission across the border in coordination with Afghanistan, taking measures to respond to outbreaks if they occur and making every effort to ensure that the virus doesn’t spill over in either direction. To boost the confidence of marginalized communities, we are also providing essential services and vaccination of other antigens and diseases,” he said.
Outbreaks of circulating vaccine-derived polioviruses type 1 (cVDPV1) and type 2 (cVDPV2) continued to emerge and spread in the Region in 2021. As of February 2022, Afghanistan, Djibouti, Egypt, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen are responding to transmission of vaccine-derived polioviruses.
“The increasing outbreaks of circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus type 2 in the Eastern Mediterranean Region and neighbouring countries of Africa are deeply concerning and must be stopped rapidly. To do so, we need to ensure that we are creating an enabling environment for health workers to reach children with those two drops of polio vaccine,” said newly nominated co-chair H.E. Dr Hanan Mohamed Al Kuwari, Minister of Public Health of Qatar.
During the meeting, Djibouti’s Public Health Minister, Dr Ahmed Robleh Abdilleh, shared plans for vaccination campaigns and increased surveillance in response to the transmission of cVDPV2, recently detected through the newly launched environmental sampling programme.
Reflecting on the work of the Subcommittee, co-chair and Minister of Health and Prevention of the United Arab Emirates H.E. Abdul Rahman Mohammed Al Owais urged members to sustain the commitment seen in in 2021.
“We have together advocated for an increase in domestic funds, we have driven collaborative public health action in our own countries, and collectively pushed for a regional response to address the regional public health emergency of the poliovirus. But these things alone will not end transmission,” he said.
Dr Al-Mandhari expressed appreciation for Egypt’s role as the first country in the Region to roll out a nationwide vaccination campaign using the novel poliovirus vaccine, and Chris Elias, Chair of the Polio Oversight Board, praised the remarkable progress made in polio eradication in Pakistan with support of the United Arab Emirate’s Pakistan Assistance Programme.
“This regional solidarity and commitment we have seen, through this Subcommittee, is something I am proud of. It is this commitment to the end goal that will help push us over the last mile,” said Dr Hamid Jafari, director of the regional polio programme and co-facilitator of the Regional Subcommittee.
With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, continued wild polio transmission in the remaining endemic countries and spreading outbreaks of circulating vaccine-derived polioviruses type 2 (cVDPV2), this year began with many challenges facing polio eradication efforts. But amid this new reality, countries and partners of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) intensified their efforts to protect children from lifelong paralysis.
In June, the GPEI launched the new GPEI Strategy 2022-2026, which lays out the roadmap to achieving a lasting world free of all forms of polioviruses through stronger community engagement, a renewed focus on gender equity and the rollout of new tools and technologies. These new tools include the novel oral polio vaccine type 2 (nOPV2), which began deployment under Emergency Use Listing (EUL) as part of the GPEI’s broader polio vaccine repository to curb cVDPV2 transmission. In August, the WHO African Region celebrated one year since it was certified wild polio-free, and countries recommitted to strong cVDPV2 outbreak response across the continent with the support of the GPEI.
Further critical progress took place in Afghanistan – one of two final countries endemic for wild poliovirus, along with Pakistan. For the first time in more than three years, nationwide polio immunization campaigns resumed across Afghanistan reaching 8.5 million children, including 2.4 million children who were previously inaccessible.
At the same time, polio programme health workers at the forefront continued to support global COVID-19 response efforts by delivering vaccines, mobilizing communities, and countering misinformation among other activities. The use of GPEI infrastructure for health emergency response has provided critical lessons for integrating polio resources into broader health systems as more countries work towards transition and the post-certification period.
Following dire predictions issued at the end of 2020, the polio programme once again proved its ability to adapt to programmatic, epidemiological and political developments. Entering 2022, there is much cause for cautious optimism – wild poliovirus transmission has slowed drastically, and cases of cVDPV2 have also declined compared to last year.
Importantly, commitment to achieving a lasting polio-free world is evident at all levels: by core GPEI partners, including among the Polio Oversight Board, which travelled to Pakistan twice in 2021; by health workers, communities and parents; and by country leaders worldwide who helped champion this year’s milestones. With the new strategy, new tools and adapted approaches, the stage is set to achieve lasting success.
To stop all forms of polio for good, the GPEI aims to capitalize on the positive epidemiological situation leading into 2022. A key opportunity to kick-start the year will be the WHO Executive Board meeting in January, where Member States plan to discuss building on the successes of this past year by fully implementing and financing the programme’s new strategy. Rotary and other key global GPEI partners are planning a renewed and intensified outreach across the broader international development community to secure the necessary financial resources to achieve success. Polio immunization campaigns will also continue in full force in both endemic and outbreak countries.
Twelve months ago, the programme was in a much different place, as WHO and UNICEF launched an Emergency Call to Action to draw attention to the need for renewed commitment. A year later, thanks to a strengthened and unified response, the GPEI is meeting the moment and is more committed than ever to end all forms of poliovirus, once and for all.
25 August 2021 – “Poliovirus circulation does not stop during conflicts, it does not stop during emergencies. If anything, it makes children and families even more vulnerable by adding a layer of risk”, says a Polio Provincial Officer from Balkh province.
Despite risks and challenges due to the recent insecurity, the polio programme is staying and delivering for the children of Afghanistan. Our 315 staff and more than 70,000 polio health workers across the country remain firm in their resolve to eradicate polio. Their work ensures that critical polio activities continue while adapting to the rapidly changing situation and carry on even when hostility levels are high.
In 2021, one wild poliovirus type 1 (WPV1) and 43 circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus type 2 (cVDPV2) cases have been confirmed in Afghanistan. All cases have been reported in areas of the country that have for years been inaccessible for door-to-door vaccination campaigns, which left at least 3 million children repeatedly deprived of polio vaccination. Population displacement brought about by the current situation could further impact the programme’s access to children and increase immunity gaps against polio, triggering a rise in transmission. It is also feared that the mixing and movement of unvaccinated populations due to the upheaval faced by thousands of Afghans may spur polio transmission.
“We are working with all actors, to ensure there are no delays or disruptions to polio vaccination campaigns and overall routine immunization. Gains of the past twenty years cannot be lost. Children need immunization now, they must not bear the brunt of conflict and instability. We are calling for unimpeded access to all children,” says Dr. Dapeng Luo, WHO Representative in Afghanistan.
While the current situation is a challenge, it is by no means the first the polio programme has faced. Using its wealth of knowledge from many years of operating in complex environments, the programme has invested in robust, pre-emptive contingency planning to be able to adapt and continue delivering. Regular monitoring of the security situation has allowed for nimble decision making.
The programme has moved swiftly to ensure safety and security of its staff. Its international staff footprint has been significantly reduced and vulnerable national staff and their dependants have been temporarily relocated to Kabul. Flexible working arrangements and salary advances have been provided to cover urgent needs of staff and polio health workers, who are the backbone of polio operations.
Around eighty percent of polio staff remain at their field locations and working to maintain essential polio services, supported remotely by colleagues who have needed to relocate.
“I am filled with pride for my team and their strong resolve, courage and passion. They are the heroes children of Afghanistan need right now. Thanks to their efforts, Acute Flaccid Paralysis (AFP) and environmental surveillance never stopped. Except for a few locations that experienced temporary disruptions last week, stool sample collection, visits to active health facilities, case investigation, the shipment of samples to Pakistan for laboratory testing, and the collection and transport of sewage samples for polio environmental surveillance remain unaffected. COVID-19 surveillance, which the polio programme has been supporting since last year, has also continued,” says Irfan Elahi Akbar, Polio Team Leader, WHO Afghanistan.
Polio vaccinations are continuing through permanent transit teams in most regions and at cross-border sites, including Friendship Gate (between Afghanistan and Pakistan).
After a brief pause, the National Emergency Operation Center is back up-and-running and undertaking planning needed to implement future campaigns. Discussions are ongoing with local authorities to safeguard the resumption of critical immunization activities across the country. The programme remains optimistic that polio vaccination campaigns planned for later this year can go ahead, however, is maintaining a flexible approach.
“The safety and security of staff and polio health workers is our top priority. Their commitment to ending polio is nothing short of inspirational. I stand ready to support their critical work in any way I can. I say this with absolute conviction: We will achieve a polio-free world,” said Dr. Hamid Jafari, Director of Polio Eradication, WHO Eastern Mediterranean Region.
See link to story on WHO EMRO’s website.
The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) is closely monitoring developments in Afghanistan. GPEI partners and staff are currently assessing immediate disruptions to polio eradication efforts and the delivery of other essential health services, to ensure continuity of surveillance and immunization activities while prioritizing the safety and security of staff and frontline health workers in the country.
The polio programme in Afghanistan has operated for many years amid insecurity and conflict, and will continue working with all actors, agencies and organizations who enable delivery of immunization as well as deliver humanitarian assistance to populations in need across the country. The GPEI remains steadfastly committed to protecting all children from polio and supporting the provision of other essential immunizations and health services.
We strongly believe that the delivery of health care – including polio vaccination – is essential to prevent diseases and safeguard communities. Together with our partners, the people of Afghanistan, national and provincial authorities, we will do everything in our power to continue this critical work.
Meeting virtually this week at the 74th World Health Assembly (WHA), global health leaders and ministers of health noted the new Global Polio Eradication Initiative Strategic Plan 2022-2026 and highlighted the importance of collective action to achieve success.
Member States emphasised the urgency of implementation of the strategic plan and urged the WHO Secretariat and Member States to build on recent advances to keep surveillance high, ensure sustained, improved coverage in campaigns and respond rapidly to outbreaks. Several Members States welcomed the establishment of a new EMRO Ministerial Regional Subcommittee on Polio Eradication and Outbreaks, and roll-out of the novel oral polio vaccine type 2 (nOPV2) to more effectively and sustainably address outbreaks of circulating vaccine-derived polioviruses (cVDPVs). The Minister of Health of Egypt, Dr Hala Zaid, as a Co-Chair of the Regional Sub-Committee said: “The Regional Subcommittee offers a new, ministerial-level channel to galvanize political support, leverage funding, particularly domestic funding, and raise the profile of polio as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. Its establishment reflects the firm commitment of the Eastern Mediterranean Region to do whatever it takes to stamp out poliovirus transmission and achieve eradication.”
Dr Ahmed Al-Mandhari, the Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean, addressed the delegates and noted a year of hard work across the Region. He emphasised the critical step of establishing the ministerial Sub-Committee to ensure more coordinated support for the remaining wild poliovirus-endemic and polio outbreak-affected countries in the Region. Speaking of the new vaccine, Dr Al-Mandhari said, “We are also at the dawn of what we hope will be a new era in responding to VDPV type-2 outbreaks, with an improved vaccine, the novel oral poliovirus type 2, approved for Emergency Use Listing and soon to be used in the Region.”
Member States noted support for local community, progress on closing outbreaks and welcomed efforts to unite with other initiatives to close gaps in immunization. The WHA paid tribute to female frontline workers and highlighted their role in building community relationships. Amid the new COVID-19 reality, the WHA also expressed deep appreciation for the GPEI’s ongoing support to COVID-19 response. WHO’s Deputy Director-General, Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, highlighted the value of the polio infrastructure in addressing public health emergences, noting that the polio network has been the first in line of defence for COVID-19 response in many countries, and now providing valuable support to the rollout of Covid-19 vaccines. “It is our chance to retain the polio knowledge and expertise to build back stronger and more robust health systems. If we don’t act now, we will lose this enormous opportunity,” said Dr Jakab.
The Regional Director for the African Region, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, thanked African countries and partners for rapidly restarting and innovating to deliver polio activities after a pause during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially following the successful certification of eradication of wild polioviruses last year in the region. Integrating polio functions into other programmes will be critical to maximising the gains against this disease, she said, and to leveraging the wealth of expertise and experience that has been built.
Rotary International welcomed the new strategy and its priority on integration and extended collaboration with partners, as well as its focus on gender equality. Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, highlighted the new strategy’s alignment with the Immunization Agenda 2030 and Gavi’s new 5-year strategy, and shared importance of reaching 0-dose children and missed communities with comprehensive and equitable immunization services.
Aidan O’Leary, WHO Director for Polio Eradication, addressed delegates, saying: “Wild poliovirus transmission is restricted to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and while we have seen a sharp decrease in incidence this year, this is no time for complacency. Gaining and sustaining access to all children in Afghanistan and increasing coverage of missed children in core reservoir areas of Pakistan remain the key challenges, and we must all work together to overcome these to achieve and sustain zero cases. At the same time, we must continue to respond to cVDPV2s. The solutions focus not just on the new nOPV2, but also more timely detection, more timely and higher quality outbreak response and strengthening essential immunization services in zero-dose communities and children, aligned with the IA2030 agenda. The new strategy addresses the broader needs of communities through expanded integration and partnership efforts along six distinct workstreams. Implementation will be strengthened through a more systematic approach to performance, risk management and accountability at all levels.”
The new strategy – Delivering on a Promise – will be officially launched at a virtual event on 10 June 2021. Details about the event are available here.
The new Regional Subcommittee brings together ministers of health from Member States across the Eastern Mediterranean Region to tackle some of the persistent high-level challenges to polio eradication. Those include raising the visibility of polio eradication as a regional public health emergency and priority and mustering the political support and domestic financial support needed to finish the job.
During the inaugural meeting convened by the Regional Director, Dr Ahmed Al-Mandhari, two co-chairs were elected to drive the regional push: Egypt’s Minister of Health and Population, H.E Dr Hala Zayed, and the Minister of Health and Prevention of the United Arab Emirates, H.E. Abdul Rahman Mohammed Al Oweis.
H.E. Abdul Rahman Mohammed Al Oweis was represented at the meeting by Dr Hussain Al Rand, the Assistant Undersecretary for Health Centres and Clinics and Public Health, United Arab Emirates. Both Member States flagged the urgency of the state of polio transmission in the last polio-endemic region at present, but also the opportunity to leverage greater regional coordination to achieve eradication.
Polio eradicators around the world know that ours is, in many ways, a grassroots programme: we use microplans to work through neighbourhoods door to door, household to household. But big-picture solidarity is needed to maximize the success of our ground-level efforts.
Wild poliovirus transmission has spread beyond core reservoirs of polio endemic Afghanistan and Pakistan, infecting 140 children in 2020. Outbreaks of circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus type 1 (cVDPV1) paralysed 29 children in Yemen. Type 2 outbreaks spread across the Region in 2020, paralysing 308 children in Afghanistan, 135 in Pakistan, 58 in Sudan and 14 in Somalia. At a time like this, moving forward as a region and as blocs, rather than on a country-by-country basis, is critical.
One of the issues identified by Member States as critical to stopping transmission is the movement of people across borders, and ensuring that surveillance and vaccination efforts target the increasing number of people who regularly cross borders across the region – whether they are moving as a consequence of conflict, environmental crises or economic necessity.
Interventions were made by Afghanistan, Egypt, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Iraq, Oman, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. All statements reaffirmed strong support for the establishment of the subcommittee under the Regional Committee Resolution on polio eradication adopted in 2020.
Members of the subcommittee were unanimous in their commitment to engage in coordinated action and support of regional polio eradication efforts in four strategic areas. These include raising the visibility of the polio emergency in the Region, pushing for collective public health action, strengthening efforts to transition polio assets and infrastructure and advocating for the mobilization of national and international funding to achieve and sustain polio eradication.
A theme that ran through all Member States’ interventions was the idea of maximizing the resources already in place – including the workers, the polio and EPI infrastructure a across the region, and the array of community leadership groups with which the polio programme has worked in past.
“Last year or the year before the year before there was a meeting in Muscat with religious leaders from different countries, and I think we need to capitalize on their support. We need to give them ownership,” said Dr Ahmed Al Saidi, Minister of Health, Oman.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had an outsized impact on polio programmes across the region. The four-month pause in vaccination, from March-July 2020, gave the virus a window to spread almost unchecked. While we are immensely proud to have shouldered much of the COVID response burden, with GPEI infrastructure still supporting that response, this has come at a cost: nearly 80 million vaccination opportunities were lost.
“But we are moving forward, making up lost ground and, through this new Regional Subcommittee, leveraging the credibility that the polio programme has built through its pivot to COVID-19 and back again to polio,” said Dr Hamid Jafari, Director of the regional polio programme and co-facilitator of the Regional Subcommittee.
That credibility is now the polio’s most valuable asset: the proof that polio programmes are not just a means to battle polio, but sophisticated, fast-moving public health assets skilled in pandemic response.
The subcommittee will report its progress to WHO’s governing bodies meetings, including the World Health Assembly and the Regional Committee for the Eastern Mediterranean.
The Secretariat, which is made up of the office of the Regional Director and members of the regional polio eradication programme from WHO’s Eastern Mediterranean Region, will support the subcommittee to develop a programme of work based on the key outputs of the group.
Anisa’s story epitomizes the heroic contribution of women polio workers in Afghanistan who continue building trust in vaccines among parents and caregivers in the quest to immunize every last child and end polio.
The yellow taxi drives slowly on an unpaved Afghan road. It has rained heavily turning the detritus on the ground into a muddy quagmire, and the car labours in its efforts not to get stuck.
Stopping near a house, a young woman in a black scarf and traditional dress climbs out of the car. This woman is Anisa, a UNICEF consultant for the polio programme. Today she is visiting parents who are refusing to let their children be vaccinated, to explain why the two drops of oral polio vaccine (OPV) are critical for their health and wellbeing.
We enter one of the houses and meet an elderly woman.
“I am not vaccinating my grandchildren!” The woman sounds resolute, but we stay anyway. “Can we talk about something else?” Anisa asks calmly. Shortly thereafter, we’re drinking tea and praising the mild weather. The grandmother tells us her left leg was almost fully paralyzed half a year ago and she can’t walk normally.
“This is horrible. You should go to the clinic. I can recommend a good doctor for you. And do you also know that children who are not immunized can also be paralysed because of polio?” Anisa starts getting to the point of our visit. “You have two wonderful granddaughters and it’s easy to protect them.”
The grandmother doesn’t seem convinced but asks questions about the rumours around the vaccine. Anisa explains that OPV is safe, halal for Muslims, and it is the only way to protect children from getting polio. One hour later, the grandmother nods – she finally agreed to vaccinate. It is hard to say what was the turning point that convinced her. Maybe the photos of paralyzed polio survivors that Anisa showed her on her phone; maybe information that polio vaccination is required for Hajj and Umrah (religious pilgrimages to Mecca which must be done at least once in lifetime by all Muslims); or simply the fact that Anisa vaccinated her own two children, and they are safe and well. The fact that the grandmother finally agreed to vaccination feels like a big victory – but it’s just a small step in the battle against polio.
Anisa has been working in the health sector for almost 10 years – as a midwife, female mobiliser vaccinator, nutrition officer and a clinical mentor. She first started to support the polio programme as a Provincial Communication Officer (PCO), supervising over a hundred communication cluster supervisors.
During the national immunization campaigns, even during the COVID-19 pandemic, Anisa supports the teams by conducting information sessions for refusal families and arranging discussion sessions for community groups. She also holds awareness raising sessions on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“After my first day working with refusal families, I wanted to leave the job. I didn’t convince anyone. But then I managed to convince one family with five children, who have never been vaccinated and it felt like such a victory that I decided to stay,” remembers Anisa. “Now I know how to approach different people; I understand what type of information is important to persuade them to make the right decision.”
On a wintery November day, vaccinators across Afghanistan wrapped up warm, checked that they had facemasks and hand sanitizer, and headed out into the cold morning. Their mission? To reach 9.9 million children with polio vaccines, before snowfall blocked their way.
From valleys to muddy lanes, we look at some of the environments where vaccinators work, as well as some of the key challenges that have made 2020 one of the toughest years for polio eradicators.
For some vaccinators, the first snows had already arrived. At the top of the Panjshir valley, Ziaullah and Nawid Ahmad started their day at 7am.
“We walked six hours to Sar-e Tangi and back to take polio drops to the last houses in the valley”, said Ziaullah. The mountainous roads in this area are impassable by car, so vaccinators walk many kilometers to the most remote villages. Sar-e Tangi means ‘top narrow edge’, and the view during the long winter is of snowy peaks.
A few kilometers from Sar-e Tangi, father Arsalan Khan was proud to have protected his own and other children in the extended family with polio drops. He said, “I ensure all the children in the family are vaccinated during each round the drops were offered and of course I will keep vaccinating them each time the vaccinators visit our village”.
Khan continued, “The vaccinators walk long distances across the mountain slopes to our villages, sometimes during harsh weather conditions, to bring polio drops to our doors.”
“Thanks to the people and countries that support the vaccination campaigns and make it possible for the drops to reach our doorsteps.”
In Badakhstan, Mr. Azizullah had COVID-19 safety measures on his mind. Like all vaccinators working for the polio programme, he had been trained on how to safely deliver polio drops during the pandemic. The temperature was below zero, with the first snow on the ground, as Mr. Azizullah walked through the rugged terrain from home to home, ensuring to wear his mask and regularly sanitize his hands.
Mr. Abdul Basit and Misbahuddin, volunteers in nearby Aab Barik village said, “It is cold and walking through muddy lanes is not easy, but we have to do our job. There was one case of polio in Badakhshan so that means there is probably virus circulation and we have to stop that”.
Mr. Abdullah, a university lecturer observing vaccination activities in Herat, said, “I believe a vaccinator’s job is more important than mine. I really appreciate their work and appreciate the international community for making the polio immunization operations possible in Afghanistan with their financial support.”
“I believe that all these efforts will be fruitful, hopefully soon, and we will get rid of the virus in our country”.
The November campaign was particularly aimed at boosting the immunity of unvaccinated children, and children who have not received their full vaccine doses. Many children have missed out on polio vaccines and other routine immunizations due to a pause in vaccination activities in the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Health workers are now racing against time to protect the youngest children from the poliovirus.
Ms. Sitara, mother of Yasameen, who was wrapped up warm against the elements, said, “I am very happy to be able to immunize my daughter and protect her against polio”.
In the east region of Afghanistan, 8,530 volunteers, 160 district coordinators and 786 cluster supervisors were hard at work, aiming to reach as many children as possible during the campaign.
Dr. Akram Hussain, Polio Eradication Initiative Team Lead for WHO in the region explained, “We were not able to do house to house campaigns in some parts of the region. As a result many children were missed during the October vaccination campaigns”.
Despite the best efforts of vaccinators, in October, 3.4 million children nationwide missed vaccines due to factors including insecurity, the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccine mistrust. The year 2020 has seen a significant rise in polio cases and detection of the virus in the environment, and the disease is present in almost all provinces.
The programme is aiming to reach more children and tackle virus spread next year. Activities include targeted campaigns in high risk districts, collaborating with the religious scholars from the Islamic Advisory Group to encourage vaccine uptake and communicating more effectively with communities.
The incredible contributions of the polio programme to COVID-19 response are testimony to the agility and adaptability of Afghanistan’s programme in the most difficult circumstances. Many hope that lessons learnt from this experience can be applied to achieving the eradication goal.
Ending polio requires everyone – including polio personnel, communities, parents, governments and stakeholders – to commit to overcoming challenges. As the weather turns colder and snow continues to fall, many are looking ahead to what 2021 holds for polio eradication in Afghanistan.
In a year marked by the global COVID-19 pandemic, global health leaders convening virtually at this week’s World Health Assembly called for continued urgent action on polio eradication. The Assembly congratulated the African region on reaching the public health milestone of certification as wild polio free, but highlighted the importance of global solidarity to achieve the goal of global eradication and certification.
Member States, including from polio-affected and high-risk countries, underscored the damage COVID-19 has caused to immunization systems around the world, leaving children at much more risk of preventable diseases such as polio. Delegates urged all stakeholders to follow WHO and UNICEF’s joint call for emergency action launched on 6 November to prioritise polio in national budgets as they rebuild their immunization systems in the wake of COVID-19, and the need to urgently mobilise an additional US$ 400 million for polio for emergency outbreak response over the next 14 months. In particular, Turkey and Vietnam have already responded to the call, mobilising additional resources and commitments to the effort.
The Assembly expressed appreciation at the GPEI’s ongoing and strategic efforts to maintain the programme amidst the ‘new reality’, in particular the support the polio infrastructure provides to COVID-19-response efforts. Many interventions underscored the critical role that polio staff and assets play in public health globally and underline the urgency of integrating these assets into the wider public health infrastructure.
At the same time, the GPEI’s work on gender was recognized, with thanks to the Foreign Ministers of Australia, Spain and the UK for their roles as Gender Champions for polio eradication.
Delegates expressed concern at the increase in circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus (cVDPV) outbreaks, and urged rapid roll-out of novel oral polio vaccine type 2 (nOPV2), a next-generation oral polio vaccine aimed at more effectively and sustainably addressing these outbreaks. This vaccine is anticipated to be initially rolled-out by January 2021.
Speaking on behalf of children worldwide, Rotary International – the civil society arm of the GPEI partnership – thanked the global health leaders for their continued dedication to polio eradication and public health, and appealed for intensified global action to address immunization coverage gaps, by prioritizing investment in robust immunization systems to prevent deadly and debilitating diseases such as polio and measles.
Dr Elaha, at 22 years old, is a medical graduate and a District Polio Officer. She’s also helping fight the COVID-19 pandemic in Afghanistan.
“COVID-19 has affected both our work life and personal life. When I joined the polio team, I had plans to take initiative and look for innovative ways to fight polio, however, with the COVID-19 pandemic all my plans were challenged,” she says. “Campaigns were postponed and the number of cases were on the rise.”
The temporary pause in polio vaccination campaigns, necessary to keep health workers and communities safe during the early months of the pandemic, led to a widened immunity gap in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, the only two countries that still harbour wild poliovirus. Now, polio teams are urgently working to close the gap while continuing their support to Afghanistan’s COVID-19 response. To ensure their safety, all polio personnel have been trained to take precautionary measures against COVID-19, including wearing masks correctly and regular handwashing.
Dr Elaha doesn’t underestimate the danger of her work to fight COVID-19. She explains, “I start my day at 8am by visiting private and public clinics, pharmacies, traditional healers at their homes. Of course, I am worried about myself and my family getting COVID-19. My mother is elderly, and COVID-19 can be dangerous for her.”
“However, I am committed to serve my people and go out in the field to help save others’ lives. It is not easy. My family understand that I am a medical doctor, so no matter what virus is there, I have to do my job as a doctor.”
Through her work, Dr Elaha has come up against rumours and misinformation. A major part of both ending polio and fighting COVID-19 is working to inform and build trust with communities about diseases and how they can be prevented.
Elaha says, “A lot of people thought that COVID-19 was a disease of nonbelievers. At first, when I used to go to clinics, because of my medical degree, they respectfully listened to me. However, when I talked about COVID-19 and washing hands and other preventative methods, they would tell me that this disease was for nonbelievers.”
“Unfortunately, a lot of people got sick and many also lost their lives. People have started to believe the pandemic. They know that people can get sick and die of the disease.”
Although public awareness about the dangers of COVID-19 has improved, Dr Elaha believes there is still plenty to do to encourage communities to adopt disease prevention measures such as widespread mask wearing.
Until the pandemic is over, she is determined to work long hours to fight both polio and COVID-19. The polio workforce currently contributing to COVID-19 response includes almost 36,000 members of the Polio Surveillance Network, and over 47,000 polio frontline workers.
“I chose to continue to do public health awareness during the COVID-19 pandemic. I wanted to help save people’s lives and continue to serve my people,” says Farida, a polio worker and volunteer for the COVID-19 response.
Seven months since the first COVID-19 case was reported in Afghanistan, female polio programme frontline workers continue to support outbreak response. Often, they put concerns for their health to one side as they work in areas with many COVID-19 cases. Sometimes, their work brings them into conflict with the social norms of their community and society.
Farida has been working with the polio programme since 2010. Starting as a volunteer, she has moved up the ranks to become a district polio officer.
Stepping up for the COVID-19 response
During the pandemic, Farida has taken on extra duties to identify suspected COVID-19 cases, share accurate information and trace individuals returning from abroad to ensure they are isolating.
On a typical day she heads out to speak to small groups of women about hygiene, breastfeeding, nutrition and measures to prevent COVID-19. She is the focal point for communicable diseases within her clinic, and so must also keep all her colleagues up to date on the latest information about COVID-19, alongside reinforcing knowledge about polio and the importance of vaccination.
Farida’s work is often emotionally challenging. “Luckily, I still have not contracted COVID-19,” she says.
“I reported seven people as I suspected that they had COVID-19, unfortunately six of them died and one of them survived and is healthy now.”
A programme effort to respond to COVID-19
Ever since the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Afghanistan, the Polio Eradication Initiative (PEI) programme has been supporting the government response.
Since March 2020, nearly 36,000 members of the Polio Surveillance Network, almost 44,000 polio frontline workers, about 95,000 health providers and about 5,000 government and NGO staff have been trained on COVID-19 surveillance. Over 178,000 community and religious influencers have been trained to deliver outreach messages, and almost 7,000 coordination meetings have been held.
About 10,000 COVID-19 and polio surveillance visits have been made to health facilities, and more than 2,500 medical facilities have been surveyed for COVID-19 preparedness. Thanks to the efforts of the polio team, over 46,000 cases of COVID-19 have been detected, of which more than 8,000 have been confirmed.
Farida shares with her colleagues a sense of duty to her fellow citizens. She says, “I go out hoping that my work might save lives. If I stay home, who will give the information to people that I do?”