We know that vaccines are one of the best buys in public health, drastically reducing diseases and deaths which impact vulnerable populations including children in particular. But what has become starkly apparent now more than ever, is how vital investments in the systems behind immunization programs are.

As COVID-19 spreads globally, many immunization programs have been forced to pause due to social distancing restrictions. This hasn’t stopped these programs’ health impact however. Critical surveillance systems and health infrastructure built through investments in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) have been vital to helping vulnerable countries be prepared to deal with outbreaks of other diseases, including COVID-19. It’s one reason we can’t afford to turn away from critical health investments such as polio eradication and the global vaccine alliance GAVI.

In many countries, health services that were being enhanced by investment in polio eradication programs are now being repurposed to include COVID-19 response in addition to polio services. Global laboratory networks, many of which GPEI partners helped establish, are now being utilized to detect COVID-19 cases. Additionally, data management systems at local, national, and regional levels are helping share real-time information about COVID-19 and track cases as they spread. GPEI is also deploying its national coordination mechanisms, such as the Emergency Operations Centers (EOCs) polio experts use to organize outbreak response, to coordinate the response to COVID-19, similarly to what EOCs did for the West African Ebola outbreak in 2014.

In Nigeria, community health workers who were trained to help stop polio have been tasked with being the eyes and ears in their community to identify and deal with any suspected cases of COVID-19. In Ogun and Lagos states, over 50 World Health Organization (WHO) polio program medical staff are conducting contact tracing, integrated disease surveillance and data collection and analysis to mitigate the further spread of COVID-19, using lessons learnt from their years battling the poliovirus. They also share critical information with communities they help care for about how to identify early signs of infection and how to prevent the virus. WHO is working with the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control on formalizing and expanding the role these vital community health workers play in surveillance and reporting in communities.

boys with polio pamphets
Young boys hold polio awareness flyers during a polio awareness session in Pakistan. Photo: UNICEF/ Asad Zaidi

In vulnerable countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan, which still face ongoing cases of wild poliovirus, polio resources and staff are also being used to fight COVID-19. In Pakistan, polio staff have helped train more than 6,000 health professionals on how to prevent, detect, and respond to the novel coronavirus. Additionally, a hotline previously used to answer polio-related calls has now been retooled to also answer incoming questions related to COVID-19. In Afghanistan, polio programs are often the only health services that are able to reach isolated or remote populations who are normally cut off from routine health programs. Utilizing this existing polio surveillance network and community workers has allowed these often marginalized populations to receive critical, COVID-19 related prevention and response information and tools such as soap and water, increasing chances of prevention, early detection,  and isolation.

Stopping COVID-19 so immunization services can resume is the top priority. That’s why response efforts supported through the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund, which enables WHO and partners like UNICEF and CEPI to prevent, detect, and respond to the pandemic are imperative. Donations made through the fund help slow the spread of the virus, especially in vulnerable countries also facing challenges with vaccine-preventable diseases like polio.

Whenever polio vaccination programs are able to resume, there will undoubtedly be catch-up needed. But strong health systems with robust investments will be critical to help close immunization gaps which are likely to widen as a result of the pandemic. Renewed funding to GPEI and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance will be imperative if we want to not only stay the course to eradicate polio around the world, and also to help deliver a COVID-19 vaccine, when it’s ready, to some of the world’s most vulnerable communities, but also to ensure health systems everywhere are strong enough to handle future public health emergencies like COVID-19.

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Featured Photo: UNICEF/ Asad Zaidi