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Vaccine ImpactOctober 15, 2020

Pakistan: Ending Polio During a Pandemic

When the COVID-19 pandemic erupted across the globe earlier this year, it posed serious risks to health systems. On one hand, rising cases overwhelmed hospitals and healthcare workers. On the other hand, the pandemic also disrupted ongoing health services: interrupting immunization campaigns and delaying shipments. Routine immunization campaigns around the globe were postponed. Vital goods like personal protective equipment and vaccines remain trapped in warehouses or on loading docks due to closed borders and canceled flights.

UNICEF Delivery Photo which holds valuable resources to help in the fight to end polio during a pandemic.

UNICEF Delivery Photo

Ending Polio During a Pandemic

In the midst of this pandemic, the value of global collective action is clear. COVID-19 has made apparent the truth that diseases do not respect borders. A threat anywhere is a threat everywhere. That’s why partnerships like the UN Foundation and Walgreens’ Get a Shot. Give a Shot® program are needed now more than ever. Through Get a Shot. Give a Shot®, for every vaccine administered, Walgreens donates the cost of a vaccine to the UN Foundation, up to $2.6 million. Since 2013, the program has helped provide over 60 million lifesaving polio and measles vaccines to children in more than 14 countries.

Get a Shot. Give a Shot® focuses on measles and polio vaccines because these diseases are two of the top disease killers of children under five. Additionally, while both diseases are highly contagious, poliovirus has been eliminated from most of the globe. Today, the world is closer than ever to completely wiping out polio.  Eradicating polio would be a huge public health achievement, as the last disease to be eradicated was smallpox in 1980.

Now with polio endemic in only two countries, the chance to end polio in our lifetime is a real possibility. However, the countries—Pakistan and Afghanistan—where polio continues to circulate face steep challenges in meeting this objective.

For Pakistan, where Walgreens Get a Shot. Give a Shot® has helped provide polio vaccines, the unique challenges to polio elimination have only been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the Last Polio Frontiers

In Pakistan, insecurity, cross-border movement, inaccessibility to high-risk children, and persistent political issues have taxed the health system and made total eradication a significant challenge.

Polio staff Husna Bibi (24) is vaccinating a four-month old girl in UC-117, Maraghzar Colony, Lahore, Pakistan during case response in August to help end polio.

Polio staff Husna Bibi (24) is vaccinating a four-month-old girl on the lap of her father. Taken in UC-117, Maraghzar Colony, Lahore, Pakistan during a case response in August. Photo: 2020/UNICEF Pakistan/Mehdi Bukhari

To tackle these rising numbers, the Pakistani government, UNICEF, WHO, and the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) revitalized their strategy for nationwide polio campaigns, holding successful campaigns in December 2019 and February 2020.

A Community Based Vaccinator immunizes a child in the urban Peshawar, Pakistan.

A Community Based Vaccinator immunizes a child in the urban Peshawar, Pakistan. Photo: UNICEF

However, in March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The country’s polio campaigns had to be paused for six months from March to July. This suspension increased the number of unimmunized children and led to lowered coverage. As a result, polio outbreaks have not been effectively contained: the virus is now spreading to new regions in Pakistan.

Commitment to Protect Polio Progress

Nevertheless, UNICEF and GPEI partners remain committed to protecting polio progress. When COVID-19 cases started declining in the country, the Pakistan government and GPEI partners resumed polio activities and conducted two sub-national campaigns in July and August 2020. Despite heavy rain and flooding in several provinces, these campaigns vaccinated more than 39 million under-five children against polio. More than 260,000 trained frontline workers went door to door, equipped with personal protective gear to ensure the safety of children, caregivers, and polio workers.

To continue the drive to eradicate polio, the Pakistan Polio Eradication program plans to conduct large scale national and sub-national campaigns between October and December 2020 to interrupt the circulation of poliovirus in the country.

Reaching all children with life-saving vaccines is critical to reduce immunity gaps to end polio.

Reaching all children with life-saving vaccines is critical to reducing immunity gaps. Photo: 2020/UNICEF Pakistan/Mehdi Bukhari

These efforts require a firm commitment from global health organizations to implement and fund critical immunization efforts. Polio immunization campaigns such as the ones in Pakistan are possible thanks to a variety of partnerships, including Get a Shot. Give a Shot®. As COVID-19 places an undue burden on polio eradication initiatives, it will require strong partnerships and all of us uniting to end polio.

Taylor Gates