Blantyre, Malawi — Malawi Sunday launched a polio vaccination campaign after the country in February confirmed its first case, 30 years after it eradicated the disease.
UNICEF, the World Health Organization and other partners of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative are leading the campaign, which targets over 20 million children in Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique and Tanzania by July.
The vaccine rollout comes after it was confirmed last month that a 3-year-old girl was paralyzed by wild poliovirus in Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe.
Until February, Malawi had last reported a polio case in 1992. The southern African country was declared polio-free in 2005 — 15 years before the whole continent achieved the same status.
UNICEF says over 9 million children are to be vaccinated in the first round of the mass campaign in Tanzania, Zambia, Mozambique and Malawi.
UNICEF said the mass immunization will also target children previously vaccinated.
“We need to vaccinate children who have been vaccinated before because it takes multiple doses of the polio doses to get fully immunized as regards to polio and every additional dose gives children extra protection,” says Rudolf Schwenk, UNICEF’s representative in Malawi.
Schwenk says if some children are not immunized during the campaign, starting Monday the risk of polio will remain not only in Malawi but in neighboring countries as well.
So far, UNICEF has procured over 36 million doses of polio vaccine for the first two rounds of immunizations of children in Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia.
In Malawi, the U.N. children’s agency is set to administer 6.8 million doses of the polio vaccine to be used in the first two rounds of vaccination in March and April, targeting 2.9 million children.
Three more rounds of vaccination will follow in the coming months, covering a total of more than 20 million children from the targeted four African countries.
However, in Malawi some health experts fear the immunization campaign would meet with vaccine resistance, as has been the case with COVID-19 vaccine in Malawi.
But UNICEF says efforts were made already to increase acceptance and demand for the polio vaccine among parents and communities.
“So we have worked with faith leaders, with high-level government officials, we have spoken to community leaders and with our partners we have done sensitization discussion to help the understand the importance of vaccinating the children,” said Schwenk.
He also says they have distributed information, education and communication materials across Malawi and aired radio messages about the advantages of the polio vaccine.
Dr. Mike Chisema, the manager for the Expanded Program on Immunization in the Ministry of Health in Malawi, told journalists Thursday that the government was ready for the polio vaccination campaign despite shortage of health care workers.
“Issue of human resource remains a challenge,” he said. “It’s not just about this particular program of outbreak response alone. But what is most important to note is that we have the teams that are available; our health surveillance assistants who do this work all the time. But it’s a question of adding the numbers over time. But we will work to manage with available human resource on the ground.”
In a statement released Sunday, UNICEF said in partnership with the World Health Organization they have trained health care workers in all the countries where they are administering the polio vaccine.
In Malawi they have trained 13,500 health workers and volunteers, 34 district health promotion officers. While in Tanzania, Mozambique and Zambia they have trained a combined total of about 3,000 health care workers.