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Health Experts Warn of Renewed Risk of Polio Outbreak Over COVID-19 Pandemic

NAIROBI, Kenya, Oct 24 – As Kenya joins the rest of the world in marking World Polio Day today, health experts have raised the alarm that the country is facing a renewed risk of an outbreak of circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus type 2 (cVDPV2), especially in Northern Kenya, Nairobi, and Mombasa following ongoing outbreak among some of our neighbouring countries.

Based on risk analysis, about 11 counties have been flagged as having the greatest risk of polio outbreaks. Apart from Mombasa and Nairobi, the other risk-prone counties are Lamu, Tana River, Garissa, Wajir, Marsabit, Killifi, Turkana, Isiolo and Mandera. The renewed threat of the virus stems from disruption of immunization programmes due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

The situation has further been compounded by the detection of cVDPV2 in neighboring Sudan, with the first case reported in the west of the country, bordering Central African Republic and the second case in the east, near the border with Eritrea and Ethiopia. Both cases concerned children under four years of age.

The disease, which causes disability, has no cure but can be prevented through the administration of a simple and effective vaccine.

Due to the restrictions and the socio-economic impact the Covid-19 pandemic has posed, it has become challenging in terms of access to basic health care both from affordability to physical access.

Because of this, concerned scientists have recently pointed to the increasing risk of polio, particularly the large numbers of children who remain unvaccinated, especially those in vulnerable populations in the northern part of the country and in the informal settlements of Nairobi and Mombasa.

While conducting a joint polio immunization exercise between Rotary Kenya and Gertrude’s Children’s Hospital at the Githogoro Slums in Nairobi, Dr. Josephine Ojiambo, the Rotary Kenya health focal point said: “This build-up of under-immunized children has previously contributed to outbreaks of polio. Most of these children come from poor families, the urban informal settlements, and the hard-to-reach parts of the country, particularly arid and semi-arid (ASAL) regions where access to health services is limited.”

She added: “Missing the polio vaccine places children at high risk for more problems in future. Vaccines are the best way to keep children protected and healthy.”

Getrude’s Children’s Hospital Chief Executive Officer, Dr. Robert Nyarango, said: “The increase of cVDPV in the region can be addressed by ensuring 100% immunization for all children and enhancing WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) in high-risk populations.”

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The health experts have therefore advised that even though the wild polio virus has been eradicated across the East Africa region and Africa, vaccination must continue for the next three years.

“Encouragingly, polio vaccines are among the most easily accessible vaccines in Kenya. It is given oral polio vaccine (OPV) at birth, 6 weeks, 10 weeks and 14 weeks along with an injectable.

They are given at all hospitals (public, faith based and private) and at times supplemental immunization activities (SAIs) such as door to door campaigns done regularly by the Ministry of Health,” Dr. Nyarango said.

Speaking at the same event, Hillary Limo, National Disease Surveillance Officer at the Ministry of Health explained that apart from polio, lack of vaccination also exposes the children to the risk of other infectious diseases such as measles and Tuberculosis (TB) and general low immunity in children constantly exposing them to many opportunistic infections.

Limo added the Ministry will intensify surveillance activities to detect any possible outbreak and will continue to collaborate with like-minded institutions to conduct countrywide polio vaccination campaigns to help boost child immunity against the virus. The campaign targets children under the age of 5 years.

Dr. Nyarango said the organisation will continue partnering with the government and other like-minded organizations in scaling the efforts of the ministry towards a renewed campaign to ensure as many as deserving children access immunization against polio.

“While the Covid-19 pandemic has shifted the discussion away from polio, we want to continue creating the awareness that now more than ever before, mothers and caregivers must keep the momentum going. We also want to continue preaching the message that our hospitals are safe to visit for our mothers and children.”

The discovery of the two cases in Sudan puts into jeopardy the milestones achieved by the continent in eradicating the virus so far. This is because when a vaccine-derived poliovirus is detected, a country cannot be certified polio-free as the World Health Organisation only considers a country to be polio-free if it goes 12 months without a case – or a positive environmental sample.

According to the WHO, Pakistan and Afghanistan are the only two countries reporting wild polio virus cases in the world, with the experts cautioning that African governments and concerned stakeholders must not relax and lower the guards.

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