Ndoutabe said the coronavirus pandemic and lockdowns slowed efforts to vaccinate children against other diseases such as polio, and hit surveillance.
According to the Gavi vaccine alliance, childhood immunisation services in the 68 countries it supports dropped by 4% in 2020, representing 3.1-million more “zero-dose” children likely unprotected from childhood diseases like polio, diphtheria and measles, and 3-million more under-immunised children than in 2019.
“This is a tragedy,” Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, said in an interview with Reuters.
“The challenge is getting that back up.”
In Malawi, where polio vaccine coverage is high — more than 90% in most districts — rates during the pandemic fell by 2%, according to Janet Kayita, WHO Malawi head. She said the child who was paralysed had one dose of the polio vaccine at birth, but not the other doses needed for full protection.
Kayita said surveillance had been more significantly affected. The case is linked to a strain circulating in Pakistan’s Sindh province in 2019, which means it does not affect Africa’s polio-free status. However, teams are scrambling to answer how it arrived in Malawi, and how long it spread undetected.
Polio, a highly infectious disease spread mainly through contamination by faecal matter, used to kill and paralyse thousands of children annually. There is no cure, but vaccination brought the world close to ending the wild form of the disease.
In a bid to prevent renewed spread in Africa, close to 70,000 vaccinators will go door-to-door in Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe to give all children under the age of five the oral polio vaccine in a $15.7m (R235m) campaign funded by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, the WHO said on Friday.
The first round, beginning on Monday, will target more than 9-million children, followed by three rounds aiming to reach all those younger than five, regardless of their vaccination status, to boost immunity, Kayita said.