The World Health Organisation Director-General, Tedros Ghebreyesus, last Friday said the battle against the eradication of the child killer disease is being suspended because of the increasing transmission of COVID-19 around the world.
Mr Ghebreyesus said this would definitely have a negative impact on polio eradication as cases might continue spreading in countries where the disease has not been eradicated.
He said in order to reduce the risk of increasing transmission of COVID-19, the polio oversight board has made the “hard decision” to suspend house-to-house vaccination campaigns knowing that it will lead to an increase in polio cases.
“To reduce this risk, we will support countries to maintain essential immunization for all vaccine preventable diseases,” he said. As at time of reporting, only two countries – Afghanistan and Pakistan – have not successfully interrupted the transmission of wild polio virus.
Nigeria which used to be the third country in that group, last year celebrated three years without reporting a single case of wild polio virus in the country. With this feat, it was expected that Nigeria and the WHO African region will be declared polio free by the middle of this year.
Also, the decision of the polio body to suspend vaccination will have a negative impact on many countries such as Nigeria where a new type of polio known as the vaccine derived polio is beginning to thrive.
As of last year, new countries which had once eradicated polio – Malaysia, the Philippines – reported the resurgence of vaccine derived polio. This led to the call for intensive vaccination campaign to stop the transmission of the virus.
Mr Ghebreyesus said many health workers involved in polio vaccination are now supporting the COVID-19 response.
“They are tracing contacts, finding cases and providing public health information to communities. “While all our energy may be focused on COVID-19 now, our commitment to eradicating polio is unshakeable.
“As you know, in recent years we have driven polio to the brink of eradication. This has been a massive global effort, started by Rotary, supported by many other partners, and led by thousands of health workers, vaccinating children in some very difficult and dangerous areas,” he said.
Mr Ghebreyesus added that the GPEI is working to ensure that once it is safe to do so, countries can be supported to rapidly restart polio vaccination campaigns.
The COVID-19 outbreak has distorted a lot of health services across the world. In order to reduce the effect of the distortion on health services among people in need of regular treatment, WHO has published guidance for countries on how to maintain essential health services even while responding to this crisis.
Mr Ghebreyesus was also saddened by reports from some countries, especially in Africa of an increase in domestic violence since the COVID-19 outbreak began. “As people are asked to stay at home, the risk of intimate partner violence is likely to increase,” he said.
Women in abusive relationships are more likely to be exposed to violence, as are their children, as family members spend more time in close contact, and families cope with additional stress and potential economic or job losses. Women may also have less contact with family and friends who may provide support and protection from violence.
“We call on countries to include services for addressing domestic violence as an essential service that must continue during the COVID-19 response,”. “If you are experiencing or at risk of domestic violence, speak to supportive family and friends, seek support from a hotline, or seek out local services for survivors,” the WHO chief said.
He advised women to make a plan to protect themselves and their children any way they can.
“This could include having a neighbour, friend, relative, or shelter identified to go to should you need to leave the house immediately,” he said “There is never any excuse for violence. We abhor all violence of all forms, at all times.