Using the vast infrastructure developed to identify the poliovirus and deliver vaccination campaigns, the polio eradication programme is pitching in to protect the vulnerable from COVID-19, especially in polio-endemic countries. From Pakistan to Nigeria, the programme is drawing on years of experience fighting outbreaks to support governments as they respond to the new virus.
Few health programmes have as much practice tracking virus or reaching out to communities as the Pakistan polio eradication programme. This means the polio team is in a strong position to support the Government of Pakistan in COVID-19 preparedness and response.
Currently, the polio team is providing assistance across the entire country, with a special focus on strengthening surveillance and awareness raising. Working side-by-side with the Government of Pakistan, within three weeks the team has managed to train over 280 surveillance officers in COVID-19 surveillance. It has also supported the development of a new data system that’s fully integrated with existing data management system for polio. All polio surveillance staff are now doubling up and supporting disease surveillance for COVID-19. Through cascade trainings, they have sensitized over 6,260 health professionals on COVID-19, alongside their polio duties, in light of the national emergency. These efforts will continue unabated as the virus continues to spread.
Adding to the capacity of the government and WHO Emergency team, the polio team are also engaged in COVID-19 contact tracing and improving testing in six reference laboratories. They have been trained to support and supplement the current efforts, preparing for a sudden surge in cases and responding to the increase in travelers that need to be traced as a result of the rise in cases. The regional reference laboratory for polio in Islamabad is also providing technical support to COVID-19 testing and has been evolving to cater to the increased demands.
As this is a new disease, polio staff are lending their skills as health risk communicators – providing accurate information and listening to people’s concerns. The government of Pakistan extended a national help line originally used for polio-related calls to now cater to the public’s need for information on COVID-19. The help line was quickly adapted by the polio communication team once the first COVID-19 case was announced. The polio communications team is using strategies routinely used to promote polio vaccines to disseminate information about the COVID-19 virus, including working with Facebook, to ensure accurate information sharing, and airing television adverts. As time goes on, the teams will train more and more people ensuring the provision of positive health practices messages that can curb the transmission of the virus.
Currently, community volunteers who work for the polio programme to report children with acute flaccid paralysis (AFP) are delivering messages on handwashing to reduce spread of COVID-19, in addition to polio. UNICEF is similarly using its Immunization Communication Network to disseminate information on personal hygiene.
Field staff have taken the initiative of using their routine visits to health facilities, during which they check for children with AFP, to check for and report people who may have COVID-19. Meanwhile, programme staff are building the capacity of health workers to respond to the novel coronavirus.
To coordinate approaches, the WHO Afghanistan polio team has a designated focal point connecting with the wider COVID-19 operation led by the Government of Afghanistan. The polio eradication teams at regional and provincial levels are working closely with the Ministry of Public Health, non-governmental organizations delivering Afghanistan’s Basic Package of Health Services and other partners to enhance Afghanistan’s preparedness.
“In the field, when there is an emergency, the first call is to the polio personnel,” says Fiona Braka, WHO polio team lead in Nigeria.
In Ogun and Lagos states, where cases of COVID-19 have been detected, over 50 polio programme medical staff are working flat out to mitigate further spread, using lessons learnt from their years battling the poliovirus. Staff are engaged in integrated disease surveillance, contact tracing, and data collection and analysis. Public health experts working for the Stop Transmission of Polio programme, supported by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are using their skills to undertake COVID-19 case investigations. Meanwhile the polio programme communications team is supporting the Government of Nigeria in the production of daily situation reports.
The Emergency Operation Centers in these affected states, usually used for polio eradication coordination, are doubling up as coordination hubs for COVID-19 response. The programme is also lending phones, vehicles and administrative support to the COVID-19 effort.
In states where no cases of COVID-19 have been reported, polio staff are supporting preparedness activities. At a local level, polio programme infrastructure is being used to strengthen disease surveillance. Polio staff are leading training on COVID-19 response protocols and are working to build awareness of the virus in the community. Specials efforts are being undertaken to train frontline workers as they are at high risk of contagion.
Beyond polio-endemic countries
Trained specialists in the STOP program, part of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, are actively supporting preparations or response to COVID-19 in 13 countries worldwide. The WHO Regional Office for Africa’s Rapid Response Team, who usually respond to polio outbreaks, are aiding COVID-19 preparedness in countries including Angola, Cameroon and the Central African Republic. Meanwhile, polio staff in other offices are ready to lend support, or are already lending support, to colleagues working to mitigate and respond to the new virus.
In our work to end polio, the programme sees the devastating impact that communicable diseases have. With this in mind, we are fully committed to supporting national health systems by engaging our expertise and assets to help mitigate and contain the COVID-19 pandemic, alongside continuing concerted efforts to eradicate polio.
For the latest information and advice on the COVID-19 disease outbreak visit the WHO website.