A polio vaccination campaign is protecting millions of children in Malawi
The initiative shows how the effort to eradicate the disease globally requires bold action.
The global marathon to eradicate polio is on its final lap. After millennia of living with poliovirus and the suffering the paralysis causes, today, nearly everyone lives in a polio-free country.
Since the launch of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative in 1988, the number of people afflicted with polio has declined by 99.9%. The finishing line is in sight. But there are significant, new hurdles we now face.
To succeed in eradicating polio, we must act now.
The coming five years are crucial – they may provide the last opportunity to eradicate the disease. Cases of polio have been recently reemerging worldwide, including in Malawi.
There are a number of factors behind those outbreaks, including conflict and displacement, and the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, in addition to vaccine hesitancy and misinformation.
It’s clear that to succeed in eradicating polio, we must act now. That’s exactly what UNICEF is doing.
Protecting children from a polio outbreak in Malawi
Over the past few decades, Malawi has illustrated the incredible strides that have been made. Until November 2021, the nation had gone three decades without a recorded case of wild polio. But during that month, a 3-year-old child, living in Malawi’s capital Lilongwe, was diagnosed with wild polio. The virus affected the nerve cells in her spinal cord and consequently her ability to walk.
Following the discovery, a public health emergency was declared by Malawi’s government. Within 72 hours of that declaration, a team from the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, which includes UNICEF, had arrived on the ground. A nationwide immunization campaign was launched in March 2022 and the impact of that has been profound.
Millions of children in Malawi have been protected from polio
Since the vaccination drive began, about 9 million children in Malawi have received a polio vaccination. Much of the credit for that response lies in the hands of health care workers.
Health surveillance assistants like Dessie Chisangwi and Matilda Mlumpwa have been on the frontline, going door-to-door in Lilongwe. They’ll often work long hours in the heat, traveling to households to explain the dangers posed by polio and encourage caregivers to get their children vaccinated.
How technology is playing an important role in this polio eradication campaign
A successful immunization campaign requires knowing which communities have low vaccination rates. To help with that data collection, a smartphone app called Rapid Pro is being used. Health care workers are able to track things like how many children were or weren’t vaccinated against polio in a household and how many vaccinations were administered. That kind of information is compiled and made available to other health workers.
“Quick decisions during the campaign are very crucial. This was very good for me as someone who is supposed to make sure that vaccines are available in more areas,” says Simion Chizimbwa, who is one of the campaign coordinators.
Chizimbwa says that the technology has helped his team figure out when polio vaccines need to be relocated from areas where the vaccination rate is high to areas where the numbers are lower. After a successful trial, the smartphone app has now been expanded to 11,000 phones thanks to a partnership between UNICEF and Malawi’s Ministry of Health.
The addition of cold storage facilities has been essential
In addition to expanding the availability of phone technology and supplying the polio vaccines, UNICEF has also installed 270 new vaccine refrigerators in Malawi. That’s helped to support cold chain technicians like Joackim Ghambi. He works in the Zomba district office in the southern part of the country.
“Vaccines are living things,” he says. “They need to get to people while the vaccines are still alive. Our main role is to ensure that the vaccines are in a state that it can work in the human body.”
In some cases, the communities that need these vaccines are difficult to reach. So, to transport the doses, UNICEF has equipped drivers with motorbikes and the fuel they need to navigate treacherous roads.
On the frontline, protecting children from polio
As the polio vaccines reach communities across Malawi, they’re then in the hands of health workers like Beza Belayneh. He’s a consultant with the World Health Organization and originally from Ethiopia. He’s been working in Malawi for a number of years now and is stationed at St. Joseph’s Hospital, just west of the city of Blantyre.
Belayneh has extensive experience working on immunization campaigns and he’s vividly aware of what’s at stake here. "If polio becomes endemic in Malawi, children will be at high risk of contracting polio, if they are not vaccinated adequately,” he says. “There is the risk of paralysis and even death.”
“Besides paralysis, the endemicity of the disease in the country will have social, economic and a political impact on Malawi.”
“The good thing is that polio has effective vaccines and children who take the recommended vaccines will have immunity from polio. The prevention of polio is through vaccination,” Belayneh affirms.
These are the caregivers that are protecting their children
Tionge Wittika is among the caregivers protecting their child from polio. She brought her 4-month-old daughter to St. Joseph’s Hospital to get the vaccine.
“When I heard about the campaign they were starting for polio, I felt great because I knew my baby would be safe.” Wittika says. “My message to my fellow mothers is that they should not feel scared. They should get their babies to the hospital and get them vaccinated against polio.”
Although there was no doubt in Wittika’s mind that she was going to get the vaccine for her daughter, health workers have encountered some reluctance elsewhere. That’s often the consequence of misinformation. Therefore, they’ve had to work tirelessly to convince some people that there really is a polio outbreak and the vaccines they’re administering are safe.
Thanks to this initiative, which is in partnership with the World Health Organization, millions of children in Malawi have now been protected from polio.
To prevent further outbreaks, more bold action is needed
The fact is there is no cure for polio. As long as the disease exists, it’s a threat to children everywhere. But as this campaign in Malawi shows, there is a way to help prevent it. That’s by making sure that all children, wherever they are in the world, have access to the polio vaccine.
As a global community, we are so close to achieving a world without polio. But if we fail to invest in this final push to end the disease, polio could spring back, reversing years of progress, with tragic and costly consequences.
The effort to eradicate polio requires boldness. Boldness from governments. Boldness from institutions. Boldness from each and every person who wants to help health workers end polio.
Only together can we deliver on the promise to eradicate polio. Learn more about UNICEF’s efforts to fight polio .