In March

  • 17.2 million children were vaccinated during the SNID campaign.
  • 0.9 million children were vaccinated at 371 Permanent Transit Points.

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Melissa Corkum with women polio workers of the Immunization Communication Network in Afghanistan. ©Melissa Corkum

In 2003, Melissa Corkum received a call that would change her life. The World Health Organization wanted to interview her for a position in their polio eradication team. Like most people who are hearing about polio eradication for the first time, the story compelled her, and she packed her bags to embark on a new adventure. Seventeen years later, she remains a dedicated champion of polio eradication.

A self-proclaimed ‘virus chaser’, Melissa has worked in all three polio endemic countries – Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria. She found inspiration in her first field job in Nigeria, where she realized the scale of the polio eradication programme and that she was a part of something tremendous in public health history.

“I was amazed and inspired when I first saw the efforts of the front-line workers delivering vaccines to the doorstep. It may seem simple to deliver a couple drops into a child’s mouth, but when you see it in motion for the first time, it is truly remarkable,” Melissa said.

©Melissa Corkum

To this day, Melissa remains in awe of the work required to make ‘reaching every child’ possible. From mobilizing financial resources, to getting vaccines where they need to be while keeping them cool. From the microplanning to ensure all children and their houses are on a map, to the mobilization of champions in support of polio and immunization. Along the way, the stewards of these processes play an essential role to deliver the polio vaccine.

Melissa has worn many hats during her time in polio eradication, but her current role may be the most challenging yet. As the Polio Outbreak Response Senior Manager with UNICEF, she must answer the formidable challenge of containing outbreaks, using her expertise to inform global policy, strategy and operations.

To do this Melissa spent 80% of her time in the field prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, working with partners of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), Ministries of Health and local health workers.

Her work is a mix of challenge and excitement – the challenges of containing outbreaks, including those affected by the COVID-19 emergency – and excitement in developing new tools and methods to overcome the evolving challenges that present barriers to eradicating polio.

“There is never a dull day no matter what hat you may be wearing within this programme. If we are going to put an end to polio for good, we are going to have to fight the fight on a number of fronts – endemics and now the emerging issue of outbreaks in a post-COVID world,” said Melissa.

“The key is a willingness to do whatever it takes to get the job done.”

At times, Melissa felt the weight of the enormous challenges to eradicate polio, especially during her time in Afghanistan, where protracted conflict has complicated efforts to deliver basic services to the most vulnerable. Melissa often reflects on her time as Polio Team Lead there and the emotional rollercoaster she faced trying to stay ahead of the virus, while watching the tragedy of war unfold in the country.

“But when I felt down, I would pick myself up and get ready to face the next challenge. I found hope and inspiration in the resilience of the Afghan people, especially the women who worked in the polio programme, risking their lives and demonstrating a courage that stood out amidst all the difficulties.”

“It is so inspiring to be part of something tangible and something that is completely possible if we commit ourselves to doing everything possible to find every last child”. ©Melissa Corkum

Melissa sees gender as one of the keys to polio eradication. She firmly believes that the only way to tighten the gaps in the system is by involving and empowering women equally in all roles across the programme, and that the only way to reach every child is to ensure their caregivers are equally informed and engaged in the decision making process.

“Unless we involve more women in the programme in certain corners of the world, we will continue to reach the same children and miss the same children, making polio eradication ever more difficult,” Melissa said.

“Change won’t happen if we don’t change the way we think about involving women. We need to listen to their views and open the doors for more women to join and participate equally from the community level and all the way to the leadership, decision-making level.”

Melissa was born in a small town in Nova Scotia, Canada. Her views on the critical involvement of women and gender equality in the polio programme very much align with her government’s Feminist Aid Policy. The Government of Canada has been a long-time champion of polio eradication and recently generously pledged C$ 190 million to assist the GPEI achieve its objectives of polio eradication.

Greater gender equity is one of the legacies that the polio programme is working to leave behind after eradication. Reflecting on her career, Melissa explains what keeps her working to defeat polio after all these years.

“It is so inspiring to be part of something tangible and something that is completely possible if we commit ourselves to doing everything possible to find every last child”.

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A polio worker administering the life-saving polio drops to children in Pakistan © WHO/EMRO

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is more critical than ever to recognize the power and importance of vaccines, which save millions of lives each year. Canada, the first government to contribute to the global effort to eradicate polio in 1986, has announced new investments to support immunization. Alongside renewed funding for Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the Honourable Karina Gould, Canada’s Minister of International Development, committed C$ 47.5 million annually over four years to support the Global Polio Eradication Initiative’s Endgame Strategy.

Due to widespread polio vaccination efforts over the past 30 years, more than 18 million people are walking today who would otherwise have been paralyzed, and cases have dropped by 99.9% thanks to the tireless efforts of health workers, local governments and global partners. The GPEI is proud to count on generous donors, including Canada, who have helped make this progress possible. This new investment will help the programme ensure gains made to date are not lost, resume activities as soon as it is feasible, implement strategies to overcome the remaining barriers to eradication, and further the dream of a polio-free world.

Minister Gould stated: “As a global community, we must work to ensure that those most vulnerable, including women and children, have access to vaccinations to keep them healthy wherever they live. COVID-19 has demonstrated that viruses do not know borders. Our health here in Canada depends on the health of everyone, everywhere. Together, we must build a more resilient planet.” The Minister added “The world has never been closer to eradicating polio, but the job is not done. With continued transmission in Afghanistan and Pakistan, we cannot afford to be complacent.”

Frontline polio workers in countries around the world are currently supporting the COVID-19 response, using networks established by the GPEI to focus on case detection, tracing, testing and data management. The G7 and the G20, including the Canadian Government, have recognized the important role GPEI assets play in strengthening health systems and advancing global health security, especially among the most vulnerable populations of the world.

In line with its feminist international assistance policy, Canada has encouraged the GPEI to build on the important role played by women in the programme, from the front lines to programme management and political leadership.

Akhil Iyer, Director of the Polio Eradication Programme at UNICEF said, “The new funding from the Canadian government is a testament to the major role played by the Canadian people in the historical fight against polio, and I am proud to be part of this endeavour as a Canadian citizen myself. Back in the 1950’s in Canada, poliovirus outbreaks could have paralysed or killed so many more children, and could have plagued the economy and pushed millions in vicious circles of poverty and ill health. But thanks to the scientific breakthrough of Dr. Leone Farrell who made mass production of polio vaccines possible, strong leadership and a learning health system, Canada was able to overcome the polio outbreaks and thrive during the following decades. It is more inspiring than ever, as we strive together to end polio from the world for good.”

Rotary clubs throughout Canada welcomed the new pledge as a continuation of the country’s leadership and partnership to end polio. Canada has worked closely with Rotary clubs in Canada since 1986 when Canada became a donor to GPEI. To date, Canadian Rotarians have raised and contributed more than US$ 41.3 million to eradication efforts.

Michel Zaffran, Director of the Polio Eradication Programme at the World Health Organization said, “I would like to express the profound gratitude of the GPEI partners to the Government and to the citizens of Canada for their tremendous support and engagement to end polio globally. The pandemic we are facing today is a stark reminder of the critical need for solidarity at all levels, international cooperation and of the power of vaccines and immunization. Canada is walking the talk: it is demonstrating once more its exemplary commitment to ensuring access to essential vaccinations, leading efforts to advance gender equality and reducing the burden of infectious diseases.”

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The Friendship Gate (R) and Torkham (L) are two of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border crossings where all-age polio vaccinations are carried out. ©WHO/Pakistan.
The Friendship Gate (R) and Torkham (L) are two of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border crossings where all-age polio vaccinations are carried out. ©WHO/Pakistan.

On both sides of the historical 2640-kilometre-long border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, communities maintain close familial ties with each other. The constant year-round cross border movement makes for easy wild poliovirus transmission in the common epidemiological block.

All ages and all genders: polio vaccines are for all travellers crossing the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. ©WHO/Pakistan
All ages and all genders: polio vaccines are for all travellers crossing the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. ©WHO/Pakistan

As a new tactic in their joint efforts to defeat poliovirus circulation, Afghanistan and Pakistan have introduced all-age polio vaccination for travellers crossing the international borders in efforts to increase general population immunity against polio and to help stop the cross-border transmission of poliovirus. The official inauguration of the all-age vaccination effort took place on 25 March 2019 at the border crossings in Friendship Gate (Chaman-Spin Boldak) in the south, and in Torkham in the north.

Although polio mainly affects children under the age of five, it can also paralyze older children and adults, especially in settings where most people are not well-immunized. Adults may play a role in poliovirus transmission, so ensuring that they have sufficient immunity is critical to simultaneously eliminating poliovirus from the highest risk areas on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

This is particularly important at the two main border crossing points – Friendship Gate and Torkham – given the extensive amount of daily movement. It is estimated that the Friendship Gate border alone receives a daily foot traffic of 30 000. Travellers include women and men of all ages, from children to the elderly.

Pakistan and Afghanistan first increased the age for polio vaccination at the border in January 2016, from children under five years to those up to 10 years old. The decision was in line with the recommendations of the Emergency Committee under the International Health Regulations (IHR) which declared the global spread of polio a “public health emergency of international concern”,

The all-age vaccination against polio at the border crossings serves a practical implementation of another recommendation of the IHR Committee: that Pakistan and Afghanistan should “further intensify cross­border efforts by significantly improving coordination at the national, regional and local levels to substantially increase vaccination coverage of travelers crossing the border and of high risk cross­border populations.”

All ages and all genders: polio vaccines are for all travellers crossing the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. ©WHO/Pakistan
All ages and all genders: polio vaccines are for all travellers crossing the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. ©WHO/Pakistan

As part of the newly introduced all-age vaccination, all people above 10 years of age who are given OPV at the border are issued a special card as proof of vaccination. The card remains valid for one year and exempts regular crossers from receiving the vaccination again. Children under 10 years of age will be vaccinated each time they cross the border.

Before all-age vaccination began at Friendship Gate and Torkham, public officials held extensive communication outreach both sides of the border to publicize the expansion of vaccination activities from children under 10 to all ages. Radio messages were played in regional languages, and community engagement sessions sensitized people who regularly travel across the border. Banners and posters were displayed at prominent locations.

Deputy Commissioner for Khyber District in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Mr Mehmood Aslam Wazir, inaugurated the launch of All-Age Vaccination by vaccinating elderly persons at the Torkham border crossing. “Vaccination builds immunity and it is necessary for children to be vaccinated in every anti-polio campaign. The polio virus is in circulation and could be a threat to any child. The elders in our community could be carrier of the virus and take along the virus from one place to another, therefore, vaccination of every traveller, of all ages and genders, crossing Pakistan-Afghanistan border will be the key determinant to interrupt polio virus transmission in the region, and the world.”

The introduction of the all-age vaccination at border crossings is the latest example of cross-border cooperation between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The two countries continue to work closely together to ensure synchronization of strategies, tools and activities on both sides of the border.

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©Gavi/2018/Brendan Esposito.
A health worker administering polio vaccine to a young child.

In the wake of a polio outbreak confirmed on June 26 2018, the Government of Papua New Guinea declared polio a national health emergency. It was imperative that all children under the age of five be vaccinated, even those living in the most inaccessible regions of the country.

As part of the outbreak response, a team from Madang Provincial Health Authority, supported by WHO, travelled for over half a day by road and helicopter to reach the Hagahai people who live in the highlands of Madang province in Papua New Guinea, which is one of the most geographically isolated places in the world.

Ever wondered what it is like to be on the forefront of the fight against polio? Watch and learn how the team made their way to the remote mountain top to deliver vaccines.

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A frontline worker is vaccinating a child against polio.                                                                                                                                                 WHO Afghanistan/R Akbar

In November, polio vaccination teams across Afghanistan targeted 5.3 million children under the age of five in high-risk provinces. The vaccination campaign came on the heels of several newly reported cases.  Afghanistan has 19 documented cases of wild poliovirus in 2018, as of November. Confirmation of even one polio case anywhere signals remaining vaccination coverage gaps which must be filled to achieve eradication.

The targeted vaccination campaign took place from 5-9 November, and with support across the board from healthcare workers, communities, religious clerics, and the government. “The Ministry of Public Health and health partners are committed to ending this disease,” said Dr. Ferozuddin Feroz, Minister of Public Health.

Afghanistan is one of the three remaining endemic countries in the world along with Pakistan and Nigeria. The endemic countries are intensifying their efforts by making sure they fully implement the strategies in their national polio emergency action plans.

Read more about the details of Afghanistan’s vaccination campaign here.

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The Mazar-e-Quaid is a prominent symbol of Pakistani independence. © WHO/Dawood Khan

 

Children clutch parents as the crowds gather. Overhead, clouds fill the sky, whilst below, noise rolls around the square where people stand. Shouts, music, and laughs all contribute to a growing sense of occasion.

The excitement lies at the heart of Karachi, Pakistan’s largest metropolis. Mazar-e-Quaid, the mausoleum of Pakistan’s founding father Muhammad Ali Jinnah, is a prominent symbol of Pakistani independence, and of the united people of Pakistan.

Each year, millions of people from across Pakistan and the world visit Mazar-e-Quaid. The number of visitors reaches its peak on 14 August, Pakistan’s Independence Day. As the sun rises, thousands arrive dressed in green, the national colour, carrying food and flags, ready to be first to enter once the site is opened up to the public.

A duty to the people of Pakistan

A child dressed in green, Pakistan’s national colour, is vaccinated against the poliovirus. © WHO/Dawood Khan

For the Pakistan polio eradication programme, Independence Day is an important opportunity. From morning to night, they will take part in a herculean effort to vaccinate all children visiting the mausoleum against the poliovirus. In doing so, they are setting world records for the number of children vaccinated in one location.

Permanent Transit Points (PTPs) are vaccination sites established at important transit points such as country and district borders, bus terminals and railway stations, to make sure that children on the move are vaccinated against polio. Currently, there are 390 PTPs across Pakistan.

On an ordinary day, eight vaccinators work at a PTP at Mazar-e-Quaid. After a quick brief, they are ready to protect all visiting children from the virus with just two drops of the safe, effective oral polio vaccine.

Independence Day requires a different kind of operation. The teams know that they have to take the opportunity to vaccine young children who otherwise might miss out.

Twenty vaccinators volunteer, enthusiastic to meet the influx of parents with young children entering the site.

As the crowds surge into the mausoleum, vaccinators immunize a new child every few seconds at fixed points at the entrance and exit, whilst others mingle with the crowds, searching for any young child without a purple stained finger – the sign used to indicate that they have been vaccinated.

This year, 11 409 children were vaccinated at Mazar-e-Quaid over the course of Independence Day. With such a small team, this is an impressive achievement.

The vaccinators

Mehwish Sheikh stands in front of the Mazar-e-Quaid, where she works as a polio vaccinator. © WHO/Dawood Khan

Mehwish Sheikh is a vaccination supervisor at Mazar-e-Quaid and is considered to be one of the most dynamic polio eradicators to have ever worked there.

Talking about her passion for polio eradication, and what drives her to protect Pakistan’s children, she says,

“Working against polio is in my blood. My mother started as polio worker in 1992 with the start of the polio eradication drive. Following her, I have worked for more than a decade now.”

“My mother vaccinated the current Chairman of Pakistan People’s Party Mr. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, and she was featured on television and newspapers. My sister is also a vaccination worker so vaccination and work against polio is our passion.”

“Will you believe that I took only 3 days off on my wedding and then rejoined the team here?”, she laughs.

So what is it like vaccinating on Independence Day?

Mehwish isn’t afraid to acknowledge the challenges that the teams face on 14 August each year.

“This is really a tough day for all of us because the number of people is so overwhelming. Peoples’ connection with their leader is especially strong on Independence Day.”

With a wry smile, she continues, “Of course, our real independence will be our independence from polio virus.”

The parents

Whilst vaccination in this context might seem unexpected, parents visiting the Mausolem are enthusiastic. This is thanks to the efforts of the Pakistan polio programme and the government to educate the population about the vaccine.

One father notes, “As parents, it’s our duty to protect our children from going into harm’s way and administering all sorts of vaccines is one way of doing this.”

A nearby mother concurs, “The vaccinators are here to save the lives of our children and we must cooperate with them.”

The eradication of polio in Pakistan will be a success for thousands of people involved in the programme, and a source of national pride.

Speeding past to vaccinate more children, one vaccinator calls out, “We want to see our names among those who are fighting the final battle against polio in Pakistan”.

In April 2016, the polio programme embarked on a massive, coordinated effort to withdraw Sabin type-2 from routine use, through a synchronized switch from the trivalent formulation of the oral poliovirus vaccine (tOPV) to the bivalent form (bOPV). Over a two-week period, 155 countries and territories successfully made this change, marking the largest and fastest vaccine rollout in history.

Referred to as simply “the switch,” this global undertaking was a major programmatic achievement, but it was also a necessary step on the road to eradication. That’s because, in rare cases, the live, weakened virus contained in OPV can mutate and spread, resulting in cases of circulating vaccine-derived polioviruses (cVDPVs). The vast majority of these cases are caused by just one of the three components contained in tOPV (Sabin type-2 virus), so switching to a bivalent form that doesn’t contain this component was an attempt to significantly minimize the risk of further cVDPV2 cases – a decision that was endorsed by the global health community. Further, with Sabin type-2 responsible for 40% of vaccine-associated paralytic polio (VAPP) occurrences – a much rarer phenomenon at 2-4 cases per 1 million ‒ there was even stronger justification for the switch.

To assess whether the switch was successful, a group of researchers from Imperial College London, the World Health Organization and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation analysed stool and sewage samples from 112 countries collected in the first 15 months after the switch. The results, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, show that VDPVs and Sabin type-2 excreted into the environment after vaccination disappeared rapidly after the switch, shrinking to a much smaller geographic area.

These findings validate the GPEI decision to withdraw tOPV and demonstrate that the switch achieved its desired goal of reducing VDPVs and VAPP. This research also provides important evidence that the complete withdrawal of OPV after eradication of all wild polioviruses will eventually eliminate the risk of VDPVs, provided high immunity and effective surveillance are maintained. Eradication is simply not compatible with continued use of OPV.

The study also showed, however, that while some outbreaks of VDPV were expected post-switch, the number and magnitude of some of these outbreaks in different geographies has proven more difficult to control than expected. Type-2 VDPV outbreaks outside of Africa have been responded to with monovalent type-2 OPV (mOPV2) and controlled. However, outbreaks in the Horn of Africa, DR Congo and Nigeria have been very difficult to bring to a rapid close.

VDPV outbreaks emerge in areas with very low population immunity, due to low immunization coverage. Factors which enable them ‒ insecurity and resulting inaccessibility, weak health systems, and poor campaign performance – are the same that need to be addressed to stop their transmission. While the programme is aware of these risk factors and has proven experience and strategies to respond to them, the longer outbreaks persist, the harder they can be to stop.

The key to stopping these outbreaks will be to increase the focus on improving the quality of vaccination campaigns in accessible areas. In inaccessible areas, we need to use all available means to negotiate access and implement vaccination campaigns. Achieving high quality campaign activities will give us the best chance to stop all types of poliovirus for good and prevent any child from being paralysed by the virus ever again.

Reposted with permission from gavi.org.

Last month, Afia and her colleagues vaccinated 9.9 million children and educated millions of parents about vaccination across the country. © UNICEF Afghanistan
Last month, Afia and her colleagues vaccinated 9.9 million children and educated millions of parents about vaccination across the country. © UNICEF Afghanistan

This is southern Afghanistan. A place characterized by a rich, diverse, but often complex history. Enveloped by mountains, this part of the country has seen years of conflict which have left hospitals under-resourced and health services shattered. Children face many challenges – as well as conflict and poverty, southern Afghanistan has the highest number of polio cases in the world.

In this difficult environment, the virus can only be defeated if every child is vaccinated.

Afia holds a young child who has just received a polio vaccination. The polio eradication programme is one of the biggest female work forces in Afghanistan. © UNICEF Afghanistan
Afia holds a young child who has just received a polio vaccination. The polio eradication programme is one of the biggest female work forces in Afghanistan. © UNICEF Afghanistan

Afia (not her real name), who is nineteen years old, is one of over 70 000 committed polio workers in Afghanistan, supported by WHO and UNICEF. Last month, she and her colleagues vaccinated 9.9 million children and educated thousands of parents about vaccination across the country.

The polio eradication programme comprises one of the biggest female workforces in Afghanistan: a national team, all fighting polio. Some women work as vaccinators, whilst others, like Afia, are mostly engaged in education and social mobilisation efforts. The polio programme gives women culturally-appropriate opportunities to work outside the house and engage in their community, speaking to parents about the safe, effective polio vaccine, and answering their questions. Often, women vaccinators offer other kinds of health advice, including recommendations for good child and maternal health.

To be a good vaccinator and educator, women must be committed to better health for all, with strong communication skills. They must also be organized to ensure that every child is reached during the campaign.

Afia says that if she wasn’t eradicating polio, her parents would expect her to give up her education and get married. Her younger sisters look up to her, excited to work in the polio eradication programme when they are old enough.

Her job is very important to protect all children. Afghanistan is just one of three countries – the others are Nigeria and Pakistan - that have never interrupted poliovirus transmission.

Women can vaccinate children who might otherwise miss out. Culturally, male vaccinators are unable to enter households to administer vaccine, causing difficulties if young children are asleep or playing inside. Their freedom to enter homes and give the vaccine to every child is one reason female polio workers are so critical.

Afia started work at 7 am, and is now walking home ten hours later with a young boy she has just vaccinated. Her purple burka stands out against the sand as she goes home to tell her parents and siblings about her day.

Afia feels positive about the future of polio eradication in Afghanistan: “We have a duty to protect our children, and I won’t stop working until every child is protected.”
 

Women have a right to participate in all aspects of polio eradication. Removing barriers to women’s full participation at all levels is a key goal for the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI). To learn more, see the gender section of our website, and read the GPEI ‘Why Women’ Infographic.

Afghanistan is just one of three countries —the others are Nigeria and Pakistan — that have never interrupted poliovirus transmission. © UNICEF Afghanistan
Afghanistan is just one of three countries —the others are Nigeria and Pakistan — that have never interrupted poliovirus transmission. © UNICEF Afghanistan

 

Member of Provincial Scholars Task Force Molvi Hameedullah Hameedi vaccinating a child whose parents used to refuse vaccination. Killa Abdullah, Balochistan, July 2018. © D. Khan
Member of Provincial Scholars Task Force Molvi Hameedullah Hameedi vaccinating a child whose parents used to refuse vaccination. Killa Abdullah, Balochistan, July 2018. © D. Khan

Molvi Hameedullah Hameedi is a prominent religious scholar in a mountainous rural area of Killa Abdullah district, one of the poorest districts in Balochistan province, Pakistan. With a close connection to his community, who are mostly Pashtuns, he delivers the sermon each week during Friday prayers, and runs a religious seminary.

He is also a determined supporter of routine vaccination for all children, and an advocate for better health.

This might come as a surprise if you met Molvi Hameedullah just a year or two ago. For most of his life, he did not believe in the safety and effectiveness of the oral polio vaccine, the key tool of polio eradication.

“I was a religious scholar who was very sceptical of non-governmental organizations and the polio vaccine,” he reflects.

“After reading anti-vaccine books and papers, I began following the work of anti-vaccine campaigners. Soon, I came to consider it my religious duty to spread awareness against the polio vaccine.”

“But it all changed when I was invited to a two-day International Ulema conference in Islamabad where religious scholars from all over Pakistan and other Islamic countries were invited to debate polio vaccination.”

The conference Molvi Hameedullah attended was hosted by the Islamic Advisory Group for Polio Eradication (IAG). The IAG was launched in 2014 by leading Islamic institutions including Al-Azhar University, the International Islamic Fiqh Academy (IIFA), the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB) and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

For Molvi Hameedullah, attending the conference marked the beginning of a change in perspective. “At the conference, I was given an opportunity to discuss my apprehensions towards polio vaccine. The talks I had motivated me to further research the pro-polio vaccine stance, and I started meeting with religious scholars in Karachi to debate polio vaccination.”

“Through talking to these people, I was getting a completely different picture to what I had believed earlier.”

By educating religious leaders and scholars about the poliovirus, and explaining religious justifications for vaccine acceptance, the IAG and its national equivalent equip people like Molvi Hameedullah with the tools to act as health advocates. The same skills that help scholars engage with parents about the polio vaccine are applicable for wider health, including improving routine immunization, hygiene practices, and maternal and child health.

After the conference Molvi Hameedullah was offered support by other vaccine-promoting scholars.

“I received a book from a religious support person working for polio vaccination in my area. Included were dozens of fatwas from highly esteemed madrassahs and religious teachers. I was initially sceptical, so I telephoned the madrassahs who had written them. To my surprise, all the fatwas were genuinely issued by them, and they also urged me to support vaccination wherever I called.”

Today, Molvi Hameedullah teaches similar fatwas as a member of the Provincial Scholar Task Force under the National Islamic Advisory Group. Most Task Force members have an honorary position, and are not paid a salary. Instead, the local government facilitates their transport and communication needs during immunization campaigns. Of his new role Molvi Hameedullah says, “I was faced with a different problem. I had been working against polio vaccination for many years, and now felt that I had done a great damage to the children and parents of my community. I felt it was now my absolute religious duty to negate all that I had taught before. I decided to step forth, and started working in the community voluntarily to promote vaccination.”

Religious refusals in Molvi Hameedullah’s area have declined. He has begun supporting other ways of ensuring that every child receives a vaccine, including by recruiting women vaccinators.

He acknowledges that the work he does now is not easy. He and his fellow scholars sometimes face challenges from those accusing them of having a political agenda, and changing beliefs informed by years of cultural and religious tradition takes time and patience. But he vows to continue his new mission until eradication.

There have been no cases of polio in the area of the district that Molvi Hameedullah covers since he joined the Provincial Scholars Task Force. Looking ahead, he is determined not to stop until all of Pakistan is polio-free.

Since he joined the Provincial Scholars Task Force, there have been no polio cases in Molvi Hameedullah Hameedi’s district. © D. Khan
Since he joined the Provincial Scholars Task Force, there have been no polio cases in Molvi Hameedullah Hameedi’s district. © D. Khan
Routine vaccination is one of the only health services available to internally displaced people living in Mélea camp for internally displaced persons. © WHO/D. Levison
Routine vaccination is one of the only health services available to internally displaced people living in Mélea camp for internally displaced persons. © WHO/D. Levison

The environment

Dar es Salam refugee camp, in Bagassola district, Chad, is home to thousands of refugees. 95% of the population is Nigerian, displaced by years of violent insurgency, drought and insecurity in the Lake Chad basin. Some have lived in the camp since 2014.

Here, temperatures soar to 45 degree Celsius nearly every day. Dust is inescapable, colouring everything a shade of yellow. Houses are constructed from tents, tarpaulins and reeds, pitched onto sand. There is no employment, few shops, and no green areas.

A health worker sets out to conduct house-to-house polio vaccination activities in Dar es Salam. © WHO/D. Levison
A health worker sets out to conduct house-to-house polio vaccination activities in Dar es Salam. © WHO/D. Levison

Kilometers from the lake, residents have no access to the water around which their livelihoods revolved, as fishing people, as traders at the markets located around the island network, or as cattle farmers. This renders them almost entirely reliant on aid. The edge of the camp is an enormous parking lot, filled with trucks loaded with donations. Signs interrupt the landscape, attributing the camp’s schools, football pitches, and water stations to different funding sources.

Polio immunization is a core health intervention offered by the health centre here, with monthly house to house vaccination protecting every child from the virus.

“We vaccinate to keep them healthy”

In return for their work, vaccinators receive a small payment, one of the few ways of earning money in the camp. In Dar es Salam, there are thirty positions, currently filled by 24 men and six women, and applications are very competitive. Those chosen for the role are talented vaccinators, who really know their community.

Laurence (centre) explains why vaccination is so important, whilst his colleague marks the finger of a child just vaccinated. © WHO/D. Levison
Laurence (centre) explains why vaccination is so important, whilst his colleague marks the finger of a child just vaccinated. © WHO/D. Levison

Laurence speaks multiple languages, adeptly communicating with virtually everyone in the camp. He is a fatherly figure, engaging parents in conversations about the importance of vaccination whilst his colleague gives vaccine drops to siblings. Their mother is a seamstress, constructing garments on a table under one of the few leafy trees. Laurence engages her in conversation, explaining why the polio vaccine is so important.

Describing his work, he says, “I tell parents that the vaccine protects children from disease, especially in this sun, and that we vaccinate every month to keep them healthy.”

A precious document in a plastic bag

Chadian nationals living in nearby internally displaced persons camps don’t have the same entitlements as international refugees. Several hours’ drive from Dar es Salam, children lack access to even a basic health centre.

A UNICEF health worker inspects the baby’s vaccination card. © WHO/D. Levison
A UNICEF health worker inspects the baby’s vaccination card. © WHO/D. Levison

At a camp in Mélea, vaccinators perform routine immunization against measles and other diseases under a shelter made from branches. Cross-legged on the ground, they fill in paperwork, carefully administer injections, sooth babies, and dispose safely of needles. Other vaccinators give the oral polio vaccine to every child under the age of ten. These children are mostly from the islands, displaced by insurgency. Their vaccination history is patchy at best, and it is critical that they are protected.

One father arrives accompanied by his small, bouncy son. As the baby looks curiously at the scene in front of him, his dad draws out a tied plastic bag. Within is his son’s vaccination card, carefully protected from the temperatures and difficult physical environment of the camp.

A UNICEF health worker reads it, and realizes that the child is due another dose of polio vaccine. Squealing with confusion, the baby is laid back in his sibling’s arms, and two drops administered. The shock over, he is quickly back to smiling, rocked up and down as his dad folds up the card, and ties it up in the bag once more.

A child living in Dar es Salam is vaccinated against the polio virus. © WHO/D. Levison
A child living in Dar es Salam is vaccinated against the polio virus. © WHO/D. Levison

“Our biggest challenge”

Back in Dar es Salam, DJórané Celestin, the responsible officer for the health centre explains the wider challenges of vaccination in this environment.

“We don’t just vaccinate within Dar es Salam in our campaigns. We are also responsible for 27 villages in the nearby surroundings. Reaching these places proves our biggest challenge.”

Away from the main route to Dar es Salam, there are no roads or signs, and many tracks are unpassable. To reach the 539 children known to live in the villages, vaccinators walk, or rent motorbikes, travelling for many hours.

This month, another round of vaccination in the Lake Chad island region concluded. Hundreds more refugee and internally displaced children are protected, in some of the most challenging and under-resourced places to grow up.

A mother and her child wait for routine immunization services in Mélea camp for internally displaced persons. © WHO/D. Levison
A mother and her child wait for routine immunization services in Mélea camp for internally displaced persons. © WHO/D. Levison
Salamatu Kabir (right), a HTR team lead, travels with other health workers to vaccinate children across two local government districts. © UNICEF Nigeria
Salamatu Kabir (right), a HTR team lead, travels with other health workers to vaccinate children across two local government districts. © UNICEF Nigeria

Three-year-old Ibrahim wouldn’t stop crying. Suffering from ringworm, a fungal infection, his leg had become badly infected. Left untreated, he risked developing fever and scarring wounds.

For Ali Musa, his father, it was hard to know where to turn for help. Where he lives, in the nomadic community of Daurawa Shazagi in the Nigerian state of Jigawa, there is little access to professional medical treatment.

From his home, it would take Ali a full day to trek to the nearest primary health centre. He does not recall the last time anyone in his community made this “practically unthinkable” journey.

Reaching all children with vaccines

“But when I heard in the market that a medical team was coming to us to treat sick people, especially women and children, I went with the hope to at least get him some relief from the pain,” Ali recalls.

There, Ali met members of the mobile health teams supported by the UNICEF Hard-to-Reach (HTR) project – funded by the Government of Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development. These teams are helping to ensure that children receive polio vaccinations, whilst also providing basic health services – including medications to fight infections like ringworm – in hard-to-reach areas of Nigeria.

A health worker wades across a shallow river to deliver polio vaccines and other health interventions. © UNICEF Nigeria
A health worker wades across a shallow river to deliver polio vaccines and other health interventions. © UNICEF Nigeria

The teams vaccinate against measles, meningitis and other diseases, and provide vitamin A supplements and deworming tablets for children. They also carry out health promotion activities, teaching communities about important practices such as exclusive breastfeeding. During each clinic, members of the HTR team give two drops of polio vaccine to every child, ensuring that all are protected from the virus.

At the end of their visit, the team pack up the clinic, and travel home, taking hours to cross difficult terrain by foot, boat and motorbike.

2390 children vaccinated

The HTR project aims to reduce the immunity gap among children living in Nigeria. Since 2016, when cases of wild poliovirus last were detected in the country, determination and commitment have helped to strengthen eradication efforts, but many states still face an uphill task to increase historically low routine immunization rates. This is especially the case in rural areas, where there are few services, and communities have to travel far to the nearest health clinic.

So far in 2018, the project has reached thousands of previously unvaccinated children with the life-saving polio vaccine, including 2390 children in Ibrahim’s state, Jigawa.

“Why should I let anything stop me?”

Salamatu Kabir, who leads a HTR team assigned to take immunization and basic health care services across Jigawa, says “I look at it this way. If people from outside can come all the way to bring the hard-to-reach project to my country, why should I let anything stop me from delivering it to my own people who are most in need?”

A retired health worker, she says that she doesn’t think twice about the many hurdles that she will have to overcome to reach children in communities like Ali and Ibrahim’s.

Far more of a concern is planning meals for her four children whilst she is away, and packing all the equipment she will need for the journey. Experience over the years has taught her what items to add to her bag besides vaccines. She always carries an umbrella, an extra pair of clothes, insect repellant and depending on the season, either an additional pair of sandals or, most often, rain boots.

Salamatu asserts that for the team members, “visiting the settlements to administer health care is something we have come to love and look forward to”.

When the team finally does arrive at their destination they are greeted by an expectant community. Salamatu is motivated by the direct impact her work has on the lives of others.

Little Ibrahim is one of those to benefit.  After treatment from the team, his condition improved quickly. His father Ali has since become a volunteer for the HTR project, and an avid advocate within his community for medical care.

“I will do my best to ensure every child in my village benefits from the help that is coming from far,” he says.

A child is protected from lifelong polio paralysis through OPV vaccination. © WHO
A child is protected from lifelong polio paralysis through OPV vaccination. © WHO

Following identification last month of an acute flaccid paralysis (AFP) case from which vaccine-derived poliovirus type 1 (VDPV1) had been isolated, genetic sequencing of two VDPV1s from two non-household contacts of the AFP case has now confirmed that VDPV1 is circulating and is being officially classified as a  ‘circulating’ VDPV type 1 (cVDPV1).

The National Department of Health (NDOH) of Papua New Guinea is closely working with the GPEI partners in launching a comprehensive response. Some of the immediate steps include conducting large-scale immunization campaigns and strengthening surveillance systems that help detect the virus early. These activities are also being strengthened in neighboring provinces.

The GPEI and its partners are continuing to work with regional and country counterparts and partners in supporting the Government of Papua New Guinea and local public health authorities in conducting a full field investigation, risk assessment and to support the planning, implementation and monitoring of the outbreak response.

For more information:

Contact Oliver Rosenbauer, Communications Officer, Global Polio Eradication Initiative, tel: +41 79 500 6536

Related resources

A 34-month old child had presented with symptoms of acute flaccid paralysis (AFP) on 29 April, from a community with low vaccination coverage in Orinoco delta, Delta Amacuro state.

A Sabin type 3 poliovirus was isolated from stool samples of the child. Isolation of Sabin type 3 poliovirus can be expected in children and communities immunized with bivalent oral polio vaccine, which contains attenuated (weakened) type 1 and type 3 Sabin strains.  Final laboratory analysis received today has confirmed that the AFP symptoms are not associated with wild or vaccine-derived poliovirus.

A number of conditions or infections can lead to AFP, poliovirus being just one of them.  As part of global polio surveillance efforts, every year more than 100 000 AFP cases are detected and investigated worldwide. Clinical evaluation of the child is underway to determine the cause of the paralysis. The most important point is that the child should be provided with appropriate care and support.

While wild and vaccine-derived polio have both been ruled out as the cause of this child’s symptoms, this area of Venezuela is experiencing vaccination coverage gaps. It is critical that countries maintain high immunity to polio in all communities, and strong disease surveillance, to minimize the risk and consequences of any eventual poliovirus re-introduction or re-emergence.

The partners of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) – WHO, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rotary International, UNICEF and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – will continue to support national and local public health authorities in these efforts, together with the Pan American Health Organization, which serves as the Americas Regional Office of WHO.

 

For more information, please contact:

  • Oliver Rosenbauer
    Communications Officer
    Global Polio Eradication Initiative
    WHO Geneva
    Tel +41 (0)79 500 6536
    Email: rosenbauero[AT]who[DOT]int

An acute flaccid paralysis (AFP) case, a symptom which is caused by a number of different diseases (polio being just one of them), is currently being investigated.  The child is 34 months old, and had onset of paralysis on 29 April, from an under-immunized community in Orinoco delta, Delta Amacura state.

A Sabin type 3 poliovirus was isolated from stool samples of the AFP case, and is being further analysed, including to determine if the paralysis was caused by the isolated strain. Final laboratory results are expected next week.

Isolation of Sabin 3 poliovirus is not unusual, and can be expected in children and communities immunized with bivalent oral polio vaccine, which contains both attenuated type 1 and type 3 Sabin strains.  As part of global polio surveillance efforts, every year more than 100,000 AFP cases are detected and investigated worldwide.

WHO’s Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and the GPEI continue to support local public health authorities in conducting an epidemiological and field investigation into this event.

Dr Taj Muhammad interacts with children during a polio immunization campaign in Sadar Union Council, Killa Saifullah district, Balochistan, Pakistan. © S. Mughal/WHO Pakistan
Dr Taj Muhammad interacts with children during a polio immunization campaign in Sadar Union Council, Killa Saifullah district, Balochistan, Pakistan. © S. Mughal/WHO Pakistan

Almost everyone in the Killa Saifullah district of Balochistan, Pakistan, knows and respects 35-year-old Taj Muhammad. A dedicated and passionate doctor by profession, Dr Taj spends his days working as a Union Council Medical Officer in his local public health facility, and his evenings running a free medical clinic for local residents.

In his capacity as Medical Officer, he coordinates polio eradication efforts at the Union Council level, which is the smallest administrative unit in Pakistan.

His role includes coordinating microplanning, training frontline health workers, and supervising polio vaccination campaign activities. Since the start of his medical career in 2007, he has supervised more than 100 polio vaccination campaigns.

Dr Taj says he became a doctor to fill the existing health care gap in his area. “During my childhood, my mother was seriously ill and she died because of the absence of medical facilities in our area. She often used to tell me that I must become a doctor to help poor people with their health. She died afterwards but her words are still in my heart,” he explains.

His hometown, Killa Saifullah, is located 135 kilometers away from Balochistan’s provincial capital Quetta. Economic and social deprivation is widespread, and the district lacks basic health facilities, particularly for women and children. “There is only one hospital, serving only 150 people per day in the district, whereas the current population is more than 200,000. In these conditions, working as a medical officer is quite challenging,” Dr Taj says.

His job is tiring, and the demands are huge, but Dr Taj perseveres. As well as supporting polio vaccination activities, and endorsing vaccination, each day he tends to the large crowd of people who gather outside his evening clinic, often desperately needing health care.

His work to serve his community is particularly important because Killa Saifullah lies close to Dukki, where the only case of polio in Pakistan so far in 2018 was reported. Nawabzada Dara Khan, who chairs the Killa Saifullah’s Municipal Committee, notes that the community feels “vulnerable” knowing that the virus is close by.

Since the first polio case of 2018 was detected, polio vaccination campaigns have been conducted in response in all neighboring districts, including Killa Saifullah. But whilst this has increased immunity to the virus, it has also caused vaccine hesitancy amongst some parents, who question the need for multiple vaccination campaigns.

“We are trying hard to vaccinate each and every child; however, repeated campaigns and misconceptions are posing a big challenge for us,” Dara Khan says.

Luckily, the efforts of dedicated doctors like Dr Taj are helping to remove misconceptions and doubt.  With the immense trust and respect he enjoys from his community, he has been able to use his free evening clinic as a local platform to advocate for polio eradication and the safety of the vaccine, extending his critical role in the polio programme.

Dara Khan adds, “The contribution of Dr Taj in polio eradication is commendable. His goodwill is playing a very positive role within our community to remove these misconceptions.”

His impact is also wide ranging, reaching multiple different families.

The proof? In April, thanks to the intensive efforts of Dr Taj and others, no parents or caregivers in Killa Saifullah refused vaccination.

That’s 70,690 children who now have lifelong protection from polio.

Dr Taj monitoring the work of a vaccination team during a polio immunization campaign in his district. © S. Mughal/WHO Pakistan
Dr Taj monitoring the work of a vaccination team during a polio immunization campaign in his district. © S. Mughal/WHO Pakistan
Microplans guide the activities of polio vaccinators. © WHO Afghanistan/Amarkhil
Microplans guide the activities of polio vaccinators. © WHO Afghanistan/Amarkhil

How do vaccinators ensure that every child is reached?

Every child needs to be vaccinated to protect them from poliovirus. To achieve this, detailed plans are prepared for vaccination teams. The aim is to find each child under 5 years of age – in Afghanistan, that’s around 10 million – and to reach them with vaccines.

A heavy steel gate opens on a quiet suburban street in central Herat. The city lies in a fertile river valley in Afghanistan’s west, an area rich with history. Over the centuries, invaders from Genghis Khan’s army to the troops of the Timurid empire, the Mughals and the Safavids have opened the gates to rule the city once known as the Pearl of Khorasan.

Now, a far more peaceful group can be seen walking down the streets of Herat. Equipped with blue vaccine carrier boxes and drops of polio vaccine, the teams knock on one door after another to vaccinate any children they find inside. The aim is to eradicate polio in Afghanistan.

Four-year old girl Fariba peeks from behind the gate and steps out on the street, followed by her father Mashal.

Mashal encourages his daughter to open her mouth to receive two drops of polio vaccine, and a drop of vitamin A. Fariba looks at the vaccinators with suspicion, but follows her father’s guidance.

The vaccinators thank them and continue down the street.

Locating all children

In March, vaccinators in Herat gave oral polio drops to over 150 000 children.

In a country with one of the highest rates of population growth in the world and frequent population movement, it is no easy feat to tell how many children live in each province, district, village, block, house or tent.

How do vaccinators know where the children in each area are located then? Through a simple but elegant guide known as a ‘microplan’. This is what the vaccinator follows: Where to start the day, how many children live on that street, which is the next house to visit?

No coincidence: Who goes where

A few kilometres from Fariba and Malik’s home, Dr Khushal Khan Zaman is sifting through printed plans on his desk at the World Health Organization office.

Dr Khushal explains that once a year, health workers physically count the houses in their area. Then they check that the plans from the previous year still match the numbers.

Campaign supervisors know the approximate number of children in each house from the last campaign. But the data is complemented by their personal knowledge. As locals, they often know of any changes in the composition of their community – where new children have been born, or the location of nomadic groups who have settled in the area.

This helps keep the plans accurate. For instance, if a nomadic group has stayed in an area for a longer time, their tents may be added to the microplans. For shorter stays, a separate checklist is used instead to monitor nomadic population movement. This improves the programme’s ability to trace and reach every child with vaccines, even if they are on the move.

Once the plans have been updated, teams of vaccinators are assigned to visit specific homes on a particular day during the upcoming campaign.

The final plan indicates not only the numbers of houses and children, but also details on how many related items are needed for each team: vaccine vials, vaccine carriers, ice packs (to keep the vaccines at optimum temperature), chalk, tally sheets, pens, leaflets, finger markers, plastic bags and scissors.

This is a contrast to a few years ago, when the plans listed only the name of the area with the estimated number of children to be vaccinated. The newer plans include even the smallest houses, and information on the closest mosque and local elders.

“It needs to be clear to everyone, which team is responsible for which area. We mark where the teams start and which direction they take using arrows,” Dr Khushal explains.

And it is no coincidence who goes where. To ensure that parents allow their children to be vaccinated, vaccinators may be allocated parts of their community that they know well, to increase trust when they deliver the vaccine.

Children like Fariba might not understand yet why the vaccine is important, but their father does. When vaccinators knock, it is not chance that brings them, but care and commitment.

© Simon Nazer/UNICEF Laos
© Simon Nazer/UNICEF Laos

For 15 years Daeng Xayaseng has been travelling through rugged, undulating countryside by motorbike and by foot to deliver vaccines to children in some of the most remote villages in Laos.

It’s hard work but she is determined: “We have a target of children to reach and we’ll achieve that no matter how long it takes,” she says. “We’ll keep working until we reach every child.”

Today her team visits Nampoung village, 4 hours north of the capital of Laos, to deliver polio vaccines.

“For 15 years I’ve been working on campaigns like this,” she says. “Today we’re here with our outreach team to vaccinate children against polio. We’ll also go house to house to make sure no child misses out on being vaccinated.”

“We don’t want there to be another outbreak of polio so we have to reach everyone,” says Daeng. “In order to do that, immunizing every child in remote communities like this is a priority to ensure everyone is protected.”

UNICEF and other partners of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative are supporting the Lao Government to reach nearly half a million children under five with potentially life-saving vaccines. More than 7,200 volunteers and 1,400 health workers like Daeng and her team have been mobilized to deliver the oral polio vaccine as well as other vaccinations such as measles-rubella.

“I’m very happy and proud to do this job,” says Daeng once the team has packed up. “I’m proud to do this job to serve the community and help in any way I can.”

© Simon Nazer/UNICEF Laos
© Simon Nazer/UNICEF Laos

Read more:

Unicef blog – Ending polio in Laos

© Sweden National Authority for Containment
© Sweden National Authority for Containment

A vaccine manufacturer in Stockholm has taken the first step towards becoming a certified Poliovirus Essential Facility (PEF), leading the charge in global efforts to safely and securely contain type-2 poliovirus. This facility has been awarded a Certificate of Participation co-signed by the National Authority for Containment (NAC) in Sweden and the Global Commission for the Certification of Poliomyelitis Eradication (GCC). The Certificate is the first of its kind to be issued, indicating formal engagement in the global containment certification process.

Wild poliovirus type-2 was declared eradicated by the GCC in September 2015, however, there is risk of the virus resurging. Following the removal of the type-2 component from oral polio vaccine (OPV) and the discontinuation of type-2 containing OPV from routine use in April 2016, countries around the world have been asked to safely and securely destroy their type-2 polio samples. As a further precaution, countries continue to immunize against type 2 polioviruses with inactivated polio vaccine. For facilities needing to retain the virus for vaccine production or for critical research, stringent containment measures need to be followed. The first step is getting a Certificate of Participation.

Handling of infectious virus. © Sweden National Authority for Containment
Handling of infectious virus. © Sweden National Authority for Containment

“We are pleased to see Sweden leading the way in demonstrating conforming with the processes to minimize the risk of releasing type-2 poliovirus into the environment. Participation in the Containment Certification Scheme shows that both the facility and the host country are serious about taking on and implementing the safeguard measures necessary to become a PEF,” said Prof. David Salisbury, Chair of the GCC and of the Commission’s European regional body.

“Handling and storing an eradicated pathogen is a risk and responsibility – a leak or breach could have devastating consequences,” said Michel Zaffran, Director of Polio Eradication at the World Health Organization. “We commend Sweden for its commitment towards ensuring safety standards are met and protocols are in place to help minimize risk, and for paving the road for the containment certification process,” he said.

“The issuance of a Certification of Participation formally engages a designated PEF in the containment process. Provided that the facility meets the requirements outlined in Global Action Plan III for the containment of polioviruses (GAPIII) within given time frames, it can then progress to achieving an Interim Certificate of Containment and finally, a full Certificate of Containment to become an accredited PEF,” said Prof. Salisbury. “Countries planning to retain type-2 poliovirus will need to establish their NACs as soon as possible, and by no later than the end of 2018. The GCC urges all countries that plan to have PEFs to get the ball rolling in this process,” he said.

Since April 2016, most facilities around the world have opted to destroy their type-2 poliovirus materials rather than contain them. Twenty-nine countries, however, plan to continue to handle and store their materials in 92 designated PEFs.

WHO will propose a resolution for consideration by the World Health Assembly in May to seek international consensus on accelerating containment efforts globally.

A child is vaccinated in Raqqa. The recent polio vaccination activity was the first to go ahead in the city since it became accessible again. © WHO Syria
A child is vaccinated in Raqqa. The recent polio vaccination activity was the first to go ahead in the city since it became accessible again. © WHO Syria

From the front passenger seat of a small utility truck, Mahmoud Al-Sabr hangs out the window, looking for families and any child under five years old to be vaccinated against polio. As the car he travels in dodges rubble and remnants of buildings that once stood tall in Raqqa city, he flicks the ‘on’ switch for his megaphone.

“From today up to January 20, free and safe vaccine, all children must be vaccinated to be protected from the poliovirus that hit Syria for the second time,” he calls, beckoning families with young children who have recently returned to Raqqa city to come outside of their makeshift homes amongst destroyed buildings, to have their children vaccinated.

In 2017, amidst the protracted conflict and humanitarian crisis in Syria, an outbreak of circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus type 2 (cVDPV2) was detected, threatening an already vulnerable population.

Due to ongoing conflict, Raqqa city, which was once host to half of the governorates population, had been unreached by any vaccination activity or health service since April 2016. During the first phase of the outbreak response, more than 350,000 resident, refugee and displaced children were vaccinated against polio in Syria, but “Raqqa city remained inaccessible,” says Mahmoud.

In January 2018, polio vaccinators conducted the first vaccination activity in the city since it became accessible again, following the end of armed opposition group control.

There were no longer accurate maps or microplans that vaccinators could use to guide them in their work. Unrecognizable, the city was a picture of devastation with few dwellings untouched by the violence that once caused families to flee. The house-to-house vaccination campaign that usually helps the programme to reach every child under five wouldn’t work here. Teams knew they would have to innovate to seek out families wherever they were residing to vaccinate their children.

“All children must be vaccinated to protect against poliovirus,” Mahmoud echoes around shelled out buildings, and slowly mothers and fathers carrying their children start to appear in the street.

Mahmoud and Ahmed Al-Ibraim are one of 12 mobile teams that are going street by street, building by building, by car in search of children to vaccinate. Carrying megaphones to alert families of their presence and to tell them of the precious vaccines they carry that will protect their children from the paralysing but preventable poliovirus, they slowly cover areas of the city now unrecognizable.

“No one could enter Raqqa City now for two years,” says Abdul-Latif Al-Mousa, a lawyer from the city who joined the outbreak response as a Raqqa City supervisor for polio campaigns. “So children have not been vaccinated here since that time. Now that people have returned, we are learning where they have returned from and we vaccinate them regardless.”

“We must reach each child with the vaccine to protect them – polio is preventable, why should they suffer more?” Ahmed appeals.

Campaign brings vaccines and familiar faces

Vaccines were not the only thing to return to Raqqa City in January. It was the first time that WHO polio focal point Dr Almothanna could return to Raqqa City after being force to flee under the rule of the armed opposition group. Imprisoned for refusing the demands of the group, friends and neighbours of Dr Almothanna facilitated his escape from the city in 2016.

Dissatisfied but not deterred, Dr Almothanna continued to work with the polio programme, serving the whole governorate except his own city. Over the course of the January 2018 campaign, he worked tirelessly with vaccination teams to ensure more than 20 000 children under the age of five in Raqqa City received a dose of mOPV2 to protect them against polio. For many, it was the first vaccination they had received. In the additional campaigns that followed in March 2018, even more children were reached.

The microplans developed by vaccinator teams in the first vaccination round have become a critical road map for reaching children and families with health services, accounting for the locations of returned families and information about neighbouring families that teams had not yet located. In the second round, the microplans were updated to include new families who had returned.

Syria reported 74 circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus cases between March and September 2017. It has been more than six months since the last case was reported (21 September 2017). Efforts are continuing to boost immunity in vulnerable populations, maintain sensitive surveillance for polioviruses and strengthen routine immunization to enhance the population immunity.

Auta works as a Vaccine Security and Logistics facilitator in Borno State, Nigeria. © UNICEF Nigeria
Auta works as a Vaccine Security and Logistics facilitator in Borno State, Nigeria. © UNICEF Nigeria

Forty-year-old Auta A. Kawu says the only thing predictable about working in the conflict-affected northeastern Nigerian State of Borno is its unpredictability.

“No two days in my week are alike,” he says.

As a Vaccine Security and Logistics facilitator, Auta is one of 44 specialists working with the Government, UNICEF and partners in Nigeria, who strive to ensure sufficient vaccine stock, appropriate distribution and overall accountability for vaccines in the country. Through careful management, Auta works to give every accessible child in Borno protection from vaccine-preventable diseases, including polio.

Describing a typical week in his life, he explains that if on Monday he is arranging for the vaccination of eligible children among a group of Nigerians returning back from neighbouring countries where they had fled due to fear of violence, by Tuesday he could be speaking with government personnel to find a way to safely send vaccines to security compromised areas. On Wednesday, he may find himself rushing extra vaccines to an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp, where more people have arrived than initially expected, whilst on Thursday you may find him trying to locate a cold chain technician to fix a fridge where the heat-sensitive polio vaccine must be stored.

Evidencing the energy and commitment required to work on the frontline of vaccination, Auta notes that the work never lets up. Despite an exhausting week, on a typical Friday, you might find him on the road again, travelling to a remote location where health workers have just been given access. When he gets there, he will help out once more – trying to ensure that vaccines are distributed as effectively as possible to maximize the number of children reached.

He recounts a recent story of reaching the reception area of an IDP camp in Dalori, which is located in a highly volatile area of the state. Arriving with 300 doses of oral polio vaccine, and 200 doses of measles vaccine, he was told that new arrivals were expected later that day. Many of the people coming had been under siege by non-state armed groups since 2016, and had taken the opportunity of improved security and mobility to flee to the nearest town. Very few of the young children arriving had ever been reached with vaccines.

With the screening of children eligible for measles and polio vaccines starting around 9 am, and plenty more children yet to arrive, it was quickly clear that the available doses would not be enough.

Springing into action, Auta notified the head of the security team accompanying him of the need to go to nearest health facility to bring additional doses. Once clearance was given, he rushed to Jere Local Government, a district nearby, to collect more vaccines.

In the meantime, however, there were sudden changes in the security environment. The return journey to Dalori was not cleared until late noon.

Luckily, giving up isn’t in Auta’s nature.

By the end of the day, he had successfully delivered 580 doses of oral polio vaccine and 460 doses of measles vaccines for the children in the camp, providing some of them with their first ever interaction with a health system.

The crucial role of Vaccine Security and Logistics facilitators like Auta cannot be over-emphasized. In addition to his central work, Auta also conducts advocacy visits to traditional and religious leaders and supports the planning and implementation of vaccination campaigns in inaccessible areas.

Vaccine facilitation may be unpredictable work, but Auta is secure on one thing. Thanks to the work of him, and thousands of other determined health workers, community mobilizers and with support from donors and partners including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Government of Canada, the Dangote Foundation, the European Union, Gavi – The Vaccine Alliance, the Government of Germany, the Government of Japan, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), Rotary International, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Bank and others, Nigeria is steadily on its way to being declared polio-free.

“No two days in my week are alike.” © UNICEF Nigeria
“No two days in my week are alike.” © UNICEF Nigeria
Poliopolis is a 66-unit container village built by the University of Antwerp, Belgium, to house a polio vaccine clinical trial. © Ananda Bandyopadhyay / Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
Poliopolis is a 66-unit container village built by the University of Antwerp, Belgium, to house a polio vaccine clinical trial. © Ananda Bandyopadhyay / Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Welcome to Poliopolis! You’ll spend the next 28 days in a container village to help us test a new polio vaccine. Poliopolis is equipped with all the amenities to make your stay comfortable: air-conditioned private rooms with workstations and sinks, a lounge area with a flat screen TV and foosball table, a fitness room with a variety of exercise equipment, and a bright, sunny dining area. Enjoy your stay!

Sounds like a scene from a science fiction story, right? But this is a real polio vaccine trial that took place in a parking lot at the University of Antwerp, Belgium in mid-2017. The study, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, evaluated two novel oral polio vaccine candidates. These vaccine candidates were developed by scientists from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s polio laboratory, the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control in the United Kingdom, and the University of California, in San Francisco, with support from the US Food and Drug Administration.

Once fully developed and tested, these new, more genetically-stable, live, attenuated vaccines will prove a critical resource to ensure global polio eradication.

Read more:

US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – Welcome to Poliopolis