Niger has been struck by a new outbreak of the poliovirus following the suspension of immunization activities during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the World Health Organization.
Moreover, the United Nations health agency reported that the highly infectious, water-borne disease has infected two children, and one child was paralyzed.
New polio outbreak in Niger
The World Health Organization said that the new outbreak was sparked by a mutated virus that originated in the vaccine which was not connected to a previous polio epidemic that Niger stopped last year.
WHO's coordinator of polio eradication in Africa, Pascal Mkanda said that the poliovirus will inevitably continue as there are no high-quality immunization campaigns can be conducted promptly.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, WHO and partners announced that they were forced to stop all polio vaccination activities for the meantime, until at least June 1. Acknowledging their decision would also mean that more children will be paralyzed.
As of Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Africa reported that there have been 33,500 cases and 1,469 deaths already. However, some experts believe that the real numbers are far higher due to a lack of testing and poor surveillance.
To eradicate the poliovirus, it requires more than 90% of children being immunized. This would mean that mass campaigns will be conducted which will involve millions of health workers that would break social distancing guidelines needed to stop the spread of the new coronavirus.
Health officials initially planned to completely wipe out polio by 2000, but that deadline has long passed and pushed back repeatedly. Presently, 14 countries across Africa are struggling to contain the new outbreak of polio which have been caused also by a rare mutation of the virus in the oral vaccine.
Risk of Other Disease Outbreaks as the World Focused on COVID-19
As countries suspend national immunization programs are suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of children have become at risk of contracting measles, diphtheria, and also polio. According to UNICEF, most countries have halted mass polio campaigns and 25 countries have also postponed mass measles campaigns.
Measles, polio, and other vaccines were already out of reach for 20 million children before COVID-19. UNICEF is now concerned that the life-saving immunization progress will not only be stunted but its progress will be reversed.
Polio eradication in Africa
Polio is a highly infectious disease that can spread through contaminated water or food. It often affects children under five years old, and could paralyze about 200 of the cases. Of those paralyzed, about 10% of them die due to the crippled breathing muscles.
In 1996, there are about 75,000 children across Africa that was paralyzed because of the poliovirus. In the same year, African leader, Nelson Mandela launched his program called "Kick Polio Out of Africa." This marks the unique, cross-sectoral, and cross-continental movement to protect all children from paralysis caused by polio.
The key to finish the disease in Africa is to continue to take steps to reach all children with vaccines, strengthen surveillance, and stay fully committed at all levels to ending the disease. It is also important to maintain financial commitments.