Three-year-old Yumna, niece of Samar al-Sheikh, receives her dose of OPV at Biddo UNRWA health facility on 18 May 2022. © WHO/occupied Palestinian territory
Three-year-old Yumna, niece of Samar al-Sheikh, receives her dose of OPV at Biddo UNRWA health facility on 18 May 2022. © WHO/occupied Palestinian territory

Over four days in the middle of May, parents in the governorates of Bethlehem and Jerusalem were urged to take their children under age five to health facilities for a supplementary dose of oral polio vaccine. The aim: boost immunity to poliovirus in the face of increased regional risk.

Unlike most polio campaigns in the Eastern Mediterranean Region, the mechanism for the campaign in occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) was via health facilities, rather than house to house. This can be a major ask for parents, who must organize time and transport to get children to health facilities during a relatively brief window.

Round 1, from Monday 16 May through Thursday 19 May, tested the resolve of a community that is famously pro-vaccine (routine immunization coverage across oPt is typically between 98% and 100%), but like parents everywhere, juggling work, childcare and other commitments.

While most often, mothers took their children for vaccination, in many of the health facilities where vaccination took place, grandmothers were seen supporting mothers or even stepping into their shoes.

“I brought my granddaughters today to take the polio vaccine because their mother is studying in university and their father is working,” said Abeer Nasrallah, who brought Zeina (two) and Mariam (three) to El-Azariyeh, a Palestinian Ministry of Health clinic in Jerusalem governorate.

Tamam Taha, a nurse at the Biddo UNRWA health facility, greets a mother at the campaign registration desk. © WHO/occupied Palestinian territory
Tamam Taha, a nurse at the Biddo UNRWA health facility, greets a mother at the campaign registration desk. © WHO/occupied Palestinian territory

In Biddo, an area of Jerusalem governorate where the main UNRWA clinic serves both local families and those from more remote regions, a steady stream of clinic visitors climbed out of mini-buses and taxis after lengthy journeys.

“Many Bedouins come to us from remote areas like Bani Samuel and Beit Iksa, although the transportation from their areas is very hard for two reasons. First, the roads are very difficult, and second, there are a lot of checkpoints that could keep you waiting for hours,” said Tamam Taha, a nurse at the Biddo UNRWA health facility.

“We have good numbers of people coming to the clinic, both refugee and non-refugees, and we give the vaccine to all of them,” she said.

One of the groups she served was headed by Samar Al-Sheikh, a mother of one who arrived with three girls in tow.

“I brought my brother’s daughters because he can’t come. Usually, I would walk from my home, but I took public transportation today because I have three kids with me. It was hard to manage them, but it’s important to give them the vaccine,” she said.

In some cases, the hurdles parents faced to bring their children to health facilities were starkly visible.

Nidal Kandeel, father of Janette (three) and Jolan (21 months), arrived at Biddo UNRWA health facility on crutches.

“I got an injury in my work a year ago, and I’m now disabled for the rest of my life. It was hard for me to come to the clinic using public transportation, but I know how important it is for my children to take the polio vaccine, and this is why I am here,” he said.

Nidal Kandeel, father of Janette (three) and Jolan (21 months), arrived at Biddo UNRWA health facility on crutches after being injured at the workplace a year ago. © WHO/occupied Palestinian territory
Nidal Kandeel, father of Janette (three) and Jolan (21 months), arrived at Biddo UNRWA health facility on crutches after being injured at the workplace a year ago. © WHO/occupied Palestinian territory

While the results of this preventative campaign are still pending, clinics promoted the campaign heavily through their own social media groups, and health workers explained that logistics aside, it wasn’t difficult to convince Palestinian parents of the need to vaccinate under-fives.

 “There is a lot of demand for this vaccine. Many people have been coming since this morning to get their children to take the vaccine. In the last hour, we have vaccinated more than 100 children,” said Khawla Abu Khdeir a nurse running the registration desk at El-Azariyeh.

Following the four-day vaccination blitz at health facilities, nursing teams will review registers of children vaccinated and cross-reference these with patient lists. Parents of children who weren’t vaccinated will be telephoned and efforts made to reach those children through in-clinic follow-up or outreach.

Round two of the bivalent oral polio vaccine (bOPV) campaign is expected in mid to late June, with the aim of raising immunity levels in these two governorates.

Palestine has been polio-free for more than 25 years, thanks to a robust routine immunization programme and a strong culture of vaccine acceptance.

Nurse Khawla Abu Khdeir (rear left) hands a mother a campaign information pamphlet at El-Azariyeh Ministry of Health clinic on 16 May 2022. © WHO/occupied Palestinian territory

But following the detection of circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus type 3 (cVDPV3) in sewage outflow in Wadi Alnar site, a junction between wastewater coming from inside the green line with wastewater coming from Bethlehem and Jerusalem, the Palestinian Ministry of Health launched efforts to boost immunity in the areas deemed most at risk.

The campaign was carried out with support from WHO, UNICEF and UNRWA’s Palestine country offices.

WHO’s Palestine office provided technical support to the Ministry in planning and executing this campaign, drawing on the extensive expertise of our regional polio eradication programme.

The vaccination campaign in Palestine is part of the global effort to eradicate poliovirus, spearheaded by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.

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).

 

On Monday 16 May, the Palestinian Ministry of Health will launch round one of a polio vaccination campaign targeting all children under age five in Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

The vaccination campaign is scheduled to run over three days: Monday 16 May through Wednesday 18 May 2022. Vaccination, using bivalent oral polio vaccine (bOPV), is free and will be offered at maternal and child centres and UNRWA centres throughout Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

Palestine has been polio-free for more than 25 years, thanks to a robust routine immunization programme and a strong culture of vaccine acceptance. But following the detection of circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus type 3 (cVDPV3) in sewage outflow in Wadi Alnar site, where there is a junction between wastewater coming from inside the green line with wastewater coming from Bethlehem and Jerusalem, the Ministry of Health has taken the decision to launch a preventative vaccination campaign to boost children’s immunity in the two areas deemed most at risk: Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

“It is all of our duty to keep Palestine polio-free by making sure that our children under the age of five receive the polio vaccine every time it is offered. I encourage every parent to make it a priority to vaccinate their children – for their sake, and for Palestine,” said Dr Mai al-Kaila, Minister of Health, Palestine.

The vaccination campaign is being carried out with support from WHO, UNICEF and UNRWA’s Palestine country offices.

“WHO’s Palestine office has provided technical support to the Ministry in planning and executing this campaign, drawing on the extensive expertise of our regional polio eradication programme. Palestine is in a strong position thanks to its routine immunization programme and to the value Palestinian parents put on childhood immunizations, but the regional risk of polio is increasing and it is absolutely crucial that we reach and vaccinate every child under age five in the target areas,” said WHO occupied Palestinian territory Representative Dr Rik Peeperkorn.

“It is critical that every child can access their right to a life free from polio and other vaccine-preventable diseases. UNICEF and its partners in this campaign are making every effort to ensure no child in Palestine will be affected by this debilitating disease. It is a duty upon all of us to keep Palestine polio free,” said UNICEF’s Special Representative to the State of Palestine Lucia Elmi.

Round two of the campaign will take place in June and will offer all children under age five a second two drops of polio vaccine, further boosting their immunity. Children living outside of Jerusalem and Bethlehem do not currently require an additional dose of oral polio vaccine. If their routine immunizations are up to date, they are well protected from poliovirus and other vaccine-preventable diseases.

Poliovirus primarily affects children under age five and can lead to lifelong paralysis. It can easily be prevented through vaccination. Parents are urged to accept polio vaccines every time they are offered.

The vaccination campaign in Palestine is part of the global effort to eradicate poliovirus, spearheaded by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.

It is a hot afternoon in Chagai, a small community on the south bank of the River Gambia when the polio vaccination team arrives to a rapturous welcome. Children and women jump to their feet, some waving and swinging their hands as they pound their feet on the ground in near perfect sync with the beat of the drum.

This excitement is caused by one certain member of the vaccination team wearing a bush hat and playing the drums. Lamin Keita, 60, is a cultural musician supporting the vaccination team in raising awareness about polio and encouraging parents to vaccinate their children.  Lamin, popularly called Takatiti, because of one of his songs, is immediately surrounded by excited children, as he adjusts his beats to respond to the ecstasy and rigor of the dancers.

“When I arrive on the back of a pick-up truck with my megaphone and drums, children from the communities run after us in full excitement and jump up and down and ask me to play my drums,” Takatiti explains.

Whenever Takatiti enters a village with his drums, children and adults flock around him and jump and dance to his music, which gives him the opportunity to speak with community members about polio and the importance of vaccination in protecting children from the deadly disease. Photo: © UNICEF/UN0624019/ Lerneryd

This is what Takatiti is popular for – pulling crowds with his drums to communicate important messages like polio vaccination. For almost four decades, he has toured communities in the region, accompanying health workers as they seek to persuade parents and caregivers to vaccinate their children during mass vaccination campaigns like the polio campaign.

Local voices are the most powerful voices

Building trust in vaccines among parents and caregivers is the first critical step towards achieving high immunization coverage to stop the spread of polio. UNICEF, as a leading partner of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) for social and behaviour change, supports the government in strengthening engagements with communities, as the voices of local leaders and influencers like Takatiti play a powerful role in helping allay fears and concerns of parents and caregivers about vaccines.

“I have been making town announcements since the mid-1980s. I am aware of polio and its terrible consequences. Families hear myths and rumours and get concerned about vaccines. As they already know and trust me, I try my best to give them accurate information and clear their doubts, so that they can vaccinate their children against polio and other dangerous diseases,” Takatiti says.

“It’s important to deliver messages that are supported by facts in an effective way”

Days before the start of a polio vaccination campaign and during the campaign itself, Takatiti walks up and down the streets of villages, playing his drums and using his megaphone to talk to communities about the dangers of polio, how vaccination is the only way to protect children, and that polio vaccines are safe and free.

Awa plays with her baby, Abdoulay, after he was vaccinated during the a polio vaccination campaign in Jenoi, The Gambia, on 21 March 2022. Photo: © UNICEF/UN0623991/Lerneryd
Awa plays with her baby, Abdoulay, after he was vaccinated during the a polio vaccination campaign in Jenoi, The Gambia, on 21 March 2022. Photo: © UNICEF/UN0623991/Lerneryd

“I always try to promote peace and healthy life for all. It’s important to deliver messages that are supported by facts in an effective way. The Government and UNICEF provided me correct information and facts about polio and vaccines, so I am happy to volunteer for the campaign.”

A country mobilizes to stop polio

“If people trust health workers to cure other diseases, then it makes sense to trust the same health workers to protect our children from polio. Health workers even give the polio vaccine to their own children – so we should not doubt their good intentions. It is my job to let people know this truth, without offending them, and encourage them to vaccinate their kids,” Takatiti said.

In August 2021, The Gambia declared a national public health emergency in response to outbreaks of non-wild variants of polio in the country.

Sainabou, a healthcare worker, administers the polio vaccine to school children at New Town School during a vaccination campaign in Bakau, The Gambia, on 19 March 2022. Photo: © UNICEF/UN0624057/Lerneryd
Sainabou, a healthcare worker, administers the polio vaccine to school children at New Town School during a vaccination campaign in Bakau, The Gambia, on 19 March 2022. Photo: © UNICEF/UN0624057/Lerneryd

The Gambian government, with support from WHO, UNICEF, US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)and GPEI partners, quickly responded and started preparing for nationwide immunization campaigns – managing supply and safe storage of vaccines, strengthening surveillance and monitoring, training health workers and vaccinators, and engaging with local leaders and influencers to build trust in vaccines.

The country undertook its first national polio vaccination campaign in November 2021 and followed up with a second round in March 2022.

Thanks to thousands of health workers, vaccinators, and community influencers like Takatiti, the vaccination campaigns have reached over 380,000 children aged five years and below in The Gambia.

Children in Vakhsh region in Tajikistan receiving their first dose of oral polio vaccine. © WHO / Mukhsindzhon Abidzhanov
Children in Vakhsh region in Tajikistan receiving their first dose of oral polio vaccine. © WHO / Mukhsindzhon Abidzhanov

Infectious diseases like poliomyelitis (polio) know no borders. Importation and subsequent spread of the virus led to the paralysis of 34 children, and 26 others tested positive without developing symptoms of paralysis. Extensive immunization efforts began in February 2021, and no child, adult or environmental sample in Tajikistan has tested positive since August 2021.

The outbreak in Tajikistan marked the first detection of circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus type 2 (cVDPV2) in the WHO European Region. It is now the first cVDPV2 outbreak in the world to be declared officially closed following supplemental immunization using the novel oral polio vaccine type 2 (nOPV2).

The Region has been free of endemic poliovirus since 2002. Detection of just 1 case of polio – whether from a wild or vaccine-derived poliovirus – is considered an outbreak, and requires an immediate and comprehensive response.

“Tajikistan’s success in stopping this outbreak is a major achievement and a clear demonstration of the highest level of political commitment of the Government of Tajikistan,” says Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe.

“This outbreak and the subsequent response came at a time when the health system was already overstretched by the COVID-19 pandemic and the country was mounting a massive COVID-19 vaccination drive. Both outbreak responses had to be done without disrupting the vitally important provision of other routine vaccines to children. We acknowledge the efforts of the Ministry of Health over the past several years, which resulted in a resilient immunization system able to successfully manage all these competing immunization priorities.”

Actions taken to stop the outbreak

Following confirmation of the outbreak, the Ministry of Health and Social Protection of the Population took immediate steps, with support and guidance from WHO and other Global Polio Eradication Initiative partners. Actions included enhanced poliovirus surveillance, intensive contact tracing and a thorough review of immunization coverage at subnational levels. A rigorous risk assessment was conducted to determine the outbreak response scale and choice of vaccine, and the country rapidly completed a comprehensive verification process for readiness to use the nOPV2 vaccine.

In February 2021, a high-quality nationwide inactivated polio vaccine campaign was conducted to close the immunity gap against poliovirus type 2 among the more than half a million children born from 2016 to 2018 who had been left vulnerable as a result of global inactivated polio vaccine (IPV) supply constraints following cessation of trivalent oral polio vaccine use.
From June to September 2021, 2 nationwide and 1 subnational nOPV2 immunization rounds were implemented for all children under 6 years of age, with coverage confirmed (through external assessment) to be greater than 95%. Extensive social mobilization and communication strategies were deployed to reach groups who were at risk of being missed, including internal migrants in urban areas and unregistered children.

Assessment of the outbreak response

Several criteria must be met to officially close an outbreak, including at least 6 consecutive months in which no poliovirus is detected. The independent experts of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative who conducted the assessment in Tajikistan also looked at the performance of routine polio vaccination, the coverage achieved during the supplemental immunization rounds, and the capacity and sensitivity of the polio surveillance system to detect any poliovirus circulation.

Following the thorough assessment, which included briefings at the national level and field visits to national referral hospitals, public hospitals, polyclinics, regional and district immunization programme offices, and public health centres, the team recommended closure of the outbreak.

nOPV2 – a new chapter in global efforts to eradicate polio

Ending this outbreak using nOPV2 is an important milestone for the global polio programme. The innovative vaccine is a key part of the new strategy to stop cVDPV2s. Clinical trials show that nOPV2 is safe and effective, and more genetically stable than the traditional type 2 oral polio vaccine.

Since the rollout of nOPV2 began in March 2021, over 265 million doses have been administered across 14 countries. The majority of countries using the vaccine have also managed to stop transmission of cVDPV2; however, this is the first official closure of an outbreak to take place following nOPV2 use.

In addition to successfully halting transmission and lowering the risk of infection for millions of people, Tajikistan contributed to global research on nOPV2 with the support of WHO through an nOPV2 immunogenicity study. The country also participated in a global vaccine wastage study.

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.

On 21 March, the Federal Government of Somalia, World Health Organization (WHO) and members of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) recommitted to stopping the ongoing outbreak of circulating poliovirus type 2 (cVDPV2) in Somalia at a three-day meeting convened in Nairobi, Kenya. High-level delegates at the meeting included HE Fawziya Abikar Nur, Federal Minister of Health and Human Services, Dr Mamunur Rahman Malik, WHO Representative to Somalia and Head of Mission, alongside senior representation from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Rotary International, Save the Children, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and other UN agencies and partners.

Together, the Government, GPEI partners, which include WHO, UNICEF, the BMGF, CDC, Rotary International, GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, and other key partners endorsed the Somalia Polio Eradication Action Plan 2022 to reaffirm their commitment.

The Somalia Polio Eradication Action Plan 2022 outlines a four-point call to action to stop the spread of the current outbreak, which is one of the longest lasting cVDPV2 outbreaks to be reported so far. The robust plan aims to direct partners’ efforts and resources towards boosting population immunity, making concerted efforts to reach high-risk populations — including inaccessible and nomadic communities and internally displaced persons — to strengthen their immunity, enhancing the search for poliovirus circulation, and strengthening coordination among all stakeholders. Some of the strategies that will be deployed include intensifying efforts to offer 5 opportunities for vaccination against polio in 2022, providing routine childhood immunization in high-risk locations, where children have missed out on vaccinations, and strengthening community engagement. Given how easy it is for the cVDPV2 virus to spill over international borders, the emergency plan also advocates for stronger cross-border coordination among the polio eradication programmes in Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti.

“In the midst of the ongoing drought, and while recovering from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, our stakeholders must not forget how important it is to contain the ongoing poliovirus outbreak so that it does not spread any further and does not affect any more children’s lives,” said HE Fawziya Abikar Nur, Federal Minister of Health and Human Services. “On this occasion, I would like to extend my sincere gratitude to all our partners, and donors, for the immense efforts they have put into shielding millions of Somali children from polio over the years.”

“Since its inception 25 years ago, Somalia’s polio eradication programme has made progress, including by stopping outbreaks of wild poliovirus and, recently, one of circulating poliovirus type 3 in 2021. The programme has established a vast network of polio workforce and assets and we can do more not only to stop the current outbreak but to achieve broader health system goals through integration and effective use of our human and operational resources. Since 2018, Somalia has conducted several supplementary immunization campaigns. Despite these efforts, pockets of unvaccinated children remain, due to insecurity and limited access to health services,” said Dr Mamunur Rahman Malik, WHO Representative to Somalia.

The Somalia Polio Eradication Action Plan, which will be implemented in 2022, complements one of the goals outlined in the GPEI ‘Polio Eradication Strategy 2022–2026: Delivering on a Promise’, to stop cVDPV transmission and prevent outbreaks in non-endemic countries. It is also in line with Somalia’s national goals and UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

17 March 2022 — On Monday 7 March 2022, a case of circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus type 3 (cVDPV3) was confirmed in an unvaccinated girl aged three years and nine months in Israel. The girl had developed acute flaccid paralysis and upon testing of her stool, poliovirus was confirmed.

Further testing of the virus isolated from the girl revealed genetic links to VDPV3-strains detected in environmental samples collected between September 2021 and January 2022 from sites in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

Circulating VDPV3 has also been confirmed in a sample taken from a contact in Jerusalem.  This child does not display any symptoms of paralysis.

A previous statement published on 10 March 2022 had indicated circulation of this VDPV3 also in occupied Palestinian territory; further field investigations concluded that at this time, circulation can only be confirmed in Israel.  This classification does not however change the risk this cVDPV3 presents to children in Israel and in the occupied Palestinian territory, nor the planned response activities.

 Although there is currently no evidence of circulation of this cVDPV3 in occupied Palestinian territory, the proximity and interconnectedness of communities on both sides of the border and the volume and frequency of cross-border population movement underscore the risk to unvaccinated children in both places.

Local health authorities in both Israel and occupied Palestinian territory are conducting field, epidemiological and virological investigations, to determine more clearly the source and origin of the isolated virus and potential risk of further spread associated with it. Discussions are ongoing to plan an immunization response as appropriate (extent and scale to be determined, potentially to include a series of immunization outreaches with both inactivated polio vaccine and bivalent oral polio vaccine, both in high-risk areas of Israel and occupied Palestinian territory).  At the same time, efforts are continuing to strengthen surveillance comprehensively in both Israel and occupied Palestinian territory.

Experts from headquarters, regional and country offices of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) partnership, which includes WHO, Rotary International (RI), the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, are working together to help ensure an appropriate response and cessation of this outbreak.

Detection of this cVDPV3 underscores the importance of strong disease surveillance and high population immunity levels, in order to minimize the risk and consequences of any poliovirus introduction or emergence.

The GPEI partnership urges all health authorities to enhance surveillance for poliovirus and implement enhanced vaccination response to prevent further transmission, so that no child is at risk of lifelong paralysis from a disease that can so easily be prevented. GPEI is committed to assisting the health authorities in their efforts to stop the cVDPV3 outbreak.