’We have no choice.’ Pandemic forces polio eradication group to halt campaigns


The COVID-19 pandemic is imperiling the worldwide, 3-decade drive to wipe out polio. In an unprecedented move, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) has recommended suspending polio vaccination campaigns to help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.

On 24 March, GPEI’s leadership called on all countries to postpone until at least the second half of this year both mass campaigns to boost immunity to the polio virus and the targeted campaigns underway in Africa to stop outbreaks sparked by the live virus vaccine itself.

The implications are “huge,” says Kim Thompson, president of Kid Risk Inc., one of three modeling groups GPEI has charged with analyzing the possible impacts of the pause. More children will be paralyzed by both the wild and vaccine-derived viruses, and the virus will likely reinvade countries that are now polio-free, GPEI concedes. And polio is only one of several diseases for which mass vaccination efforts will be suspended.

“We are caught between two terrible situations,” says GPEI head Michel Zaffran of the World Health Organization (WHO). Going door to door delivering drops of oral polio vaccine (OPV) would put both communities and health workers at risk of infection with the novel coronavirus. Halting polio campaigns will enable GPEI to free up its extensive resources, including surveillance systems and tens of thousands of frontline health workers, to aid in the COVID-19 fight, he says.

“We have no choice,” Zaffran says. “We did not want to have the program be responsible for worsening the situation with COVID-19.” 

sciencemag.org, 1 Aprll 2020
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