Lessons Polio Program Teach Us About Combating COVID-19

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As the Afghans migrate due to the intensified conflict in their country, population movement has again raised fear of the spread of the wild poliovirus. Due to the efforts of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), incidences of polio have plummeted by more than 99.9 per cent globally, and only Pakistan and Afghanistan remain endemic in 2021.

Therefore, as the returnees from Afghanistan land in India, Union health minister Mansukh Mandaviya on Sunday had announced that the government would vaccinate them against polio as a preventive measure.

Countries like India and Nigeria have won a hard-fought battle against the wild poliovirus, and as we struggle to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, it is not only important to hold on to the success that we have achieved in terms of polio eradication, but also to incorporate lessons learned from the polio immunization program in the past decades to our COVID vaccination drive. The first step to achieving these two objectives is to address widespread vaccine hesitancy.

Engaging Local and Religious Leaders

Dr Tunji Funsho, a member of Nigeria’s Presidential Task Force on Polio, who was named one of TIME’s 100 Most Influential People in the world for his work eradicating wild polio in Africa in 2020, said in an interview with News18.com, “There is coronavirus vaccine hesitancy and refusal in Nigeria and across Africa, just as there was for the oral polio vaccine (OPV), many years ago. As was (and still is) the case, leveraging the “right” voice via the “right” platform to communicate credible vaccine information-and debunk myths when necessary—remains one of the primary ways to address these issues in Africa and other countries.”

Pointing out that communication is the key, he said that when wild polio was endemic in Nigeria, local and religious leaders helped build community trust in the OPV. In countries like Nigeria, and India such leaders have huge sway over the general population. Therefore, they should be given proper education and information about COVID-19 so that they can start a dialogue at the community level and dispel vaccine hesitancy.

Incentivizing Families To Get Vaccinated

Funsho pointed out that to motivate parents to give their kids polio vaccines, frontline health workers supplied families with food and other household items as they delivered immunizations to children. This drove parental demand for polio immunizations. Similar strategies can be applied to popularize COVID vaccines, and families can be incentivized to take the vaccine.

Pro-Vaccine Messaging Crucial

For polio eradication, Nigerian stakeholders also developed and shared pro-vaccination messaging through radio ads, town crier announcements and celebrity billboards and are prepared to help people register for vaccination appointments. Similarly, in the case of COVID-19, it is important to reach the rural population with the correct information through a suitable medium and make the vaccination process less cumbersome so that they are more inclined to get vaccinated.

Educating Communities

Funsho further stated, “Continuing to educate stakeholders (parents, community, and religious leaders, etc.) about the life-saving importance of routine immunization as well as coronavirus immunization remains critical to driving awareness and adoption of vaccines.”

Leveraging Polio Infrastructure

Deepak Kapur, the chair of Rotary’s India National PolioPlus Committee and vice-chair of Rotary’s COVID-19 Task Force in India told News18.com that due to decades of effective polio immunization India already has a well-structured infrastructure for immunization in place, especially in rural areas.

“Among many assets and pieces of infrastructure, we are leveraging the information, education, and communication framework from India’s fight against polio, which dictates that information must be consistent, simple, and delivered on a continual basis in multiple languages, to educate citizens on ways to prevent COVID-19,” said Kapur.

He further added that just as public and private institutions and civil society came together to address polio in Africa, we must now continue to come together to conquer yet another vaccine-preventable disease.

Bridging the Knowledge and trust gap

Deepak Kapur pointed out that Vaccine hesitancy has been a hurdle for decades, even as the underlying concerns may have shifted over the years. A vast majority of Indians who choose not to vaccinate do so because of concerns around the possibility of an adverse event following immunization (AEFI), religious beliefs or a lack of understanding of how vaccines work.

“Governments, the scientific community, medical practitioners, civil society organizations and community leaders have a critical role to play in bridging this knowledge and trust gap and setting a mindset shift in motion. This bridge is essential in the fight against vaccine hesitancy because the first step to build vaccine confidence and improve vaccine uptake is to address any underlying fears. For decades, communication of reliable, accessible information about vaccines – backed by scientific data – has been central to addressing fear and combating misinformation,” added Kapur.

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