Expertise in polio eradication that has put Africa on the verge of being certified free of the wild poliovirus has been brought to the frontlines of the fight against the coronavirus disease.
A network of responders from the World Health Organisation Polio Eradication Programme and partner organisations is providing critical resources and skills to tackle COVID-19 in Africa.
While testing is the core of any strategy to contain the virus, the region has had a relatively low number of tests performed. Since the outbreak started, nearly two million tests have been carried out in the WHO African Region, with an average test rate of 15.3 per 10,000 population.
To boost diagnosis, the WHO-coordinated polio laboratory network comprising 16 laboratories in 15 countries is dedicating 50 per cent of its capacity to COVID-19 testing. Hundreds of tests are carried out every day using polio testing machines in Algeria, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa.
“In Africa, no one has the footprint of the polio programme nor the expertise for mounting effective response campaigns. So with COVID-19 threatening to overwhelm health systems, the extensive polio response network is once again lending crucial support as countries build up systems to contain COVID-19,” said WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti.
Contact tracing has been a central pillar of the WHO polio programme’s support to the COVID-19 response. Mobile phone applications originally developed for health workers to use in polio outbreak response and disease surveillance have been adapted by WHO to be used against COVID-19. In Zimbabwe, for example, over 100 surveillance officers are using these tools for case investigations and contact tracing in many provinces where COVID-19 has been confirmed.
In addition, WHO Geographic Information System centre in Brazzaville – which was opened in 2017 to support the polio programme with adapted technologies and data management – is using its huge experience in outbreak response and disease surveillance to support countries with a range of GIS, software technology and manual solutions to respond to COVID-19. The GIS team is now working round the clock supporting countries to take up the technology for COVID-19 response.
More than 2000 polio response experts from WHO, UNICEF, Rotary, as well as STOP consultants from the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are supporting the COVID-19 response in Africa. A quarter of WHO polio staff are dedicating more than 80 per cent of their time towards COVID-19 efforts, with 65 per cent anticipating a commitment of six months or more.
Alongside the support to COVID-19 response, WHO polio staff are also maintaining critical functions and planning to resume mass polio immunisation campaigns once the situation permits.
“It is important that the support to COVID-19 response does not jeopardise the progress made in stopping all forms of polio transmission in the region. The fight against the pandemic should not come at the detriment of other health emergencies,” said Moeti.
Across the continent, COVID-19 has disrupted mass polio vaccination campaigns in line with the global physical distancing recommendations that limit COVID-19 transmission. The suspension of high-quality immunisation rounds may risk new polio outbreaks due to low coverage.
WHO is working with many partners to respond to COVID-19. Together with the World Economic Forum, the organisation held a virtual press conference today with Dr. Moeti and Mali’s Minister of Investment Promotion, Small and Medium Enterprises and National Entrepreneurship, Safia Boly.
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