Polio Resurfaces As COVID-19 Disrupts Health Priorities In Uganda

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Just a year after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the landlocked East African country of Uganda polio-free, the crippling and sometimes deadly disease has returned to haunt the country, along with other African nations.

As healthcare systems remain preoccupied with combating COVID-19, 31 African countries including Uganda have recorded 1,069 polio cases over the past year. Uganda’s Health Ministry has warned that 4.6 million children 5 and younger are at high risk of contracting poliovirus.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency on eve of Sunday’s World Polio Day, Ugandan health official Shukura Nebaza said the COVID-19 crisis has disrupted lifesaving immunization services in lower-income countries like his.

He said if the circulation of polio is left unchecked and the number of unimmunized children grows, this will undoubtedly create an increasingly high risk that polio will spread internationally.

“Leaders at all levels shouldn’t allow the COVID-19 pandemic to make the polio situation get out of hand and spread globally. Failure to contain it at lower levels would result in the resurgence of this disease and its likely spread to countries that are polio-free for now,” Nebaza said.

Henry Mwebesa, Uganda’s health services director, said the government is trying to continue immunization programs to reach every child in the country.

He said there will be a provision to screen children under 5 who lack polio vaccination.

“We intend to carry out vaccination in October and December, and all children below 5 are eligible,” he explained.

He added that the government has in place a coordinated strategy and collaboration between inter-governmental agencies aimed at containing the polio pandemic, including border areas, in revitalizing cross-border collaboration aimed at enhancing the quality of polio surveillance.

Unwelcome resurgence

In August 2020, WHO’s Independent Africa Regional Certification Commission for Polio Eradication officially declared Uganda and the African region free of wild poliovirus.

But a year later, Uganda’s Health Ministry had to declare a public health emergency after noting a resurgence of polio cases.

Health officials blamed it on the reduced routine polio immunization during the COVID-19 pandemic. As many as 20 African countries also reported polio outbreaks over the past year.

The country has also been grappling with low efficacy (64%) of the vaccine, although health officials say they had ensured 88% immunization coverage by 2019.

Margaret Muhanga, the state minister for primary healthcare, said that by December her ministry was targeting immunizing 8.7 million children within five years, or some 20% of Uganda’s total population.

According to the US-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, polio, or poliomyelitis, is a disabling and life-threatening disease. The virus spreads from person to person and can infect the spinal cord, causing paralysis, leading to permanent disability or death.

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