The COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted health systems in general including disrupting immunization services. Moreover, between January and March 2020, circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus (cVDPV) transmission was confirmed in 26 countries globally.
In light of these conditions, EMPHNET held a webinar titled “Impact of COVID-19 on Polio Eradication, and Other VPDs Elimination and Control Efforts” as part of its “WEBi Series on September 15, 2020.
Participating experts included Medical Epidemiologist, Measles Elimination Team Lead, Global Immunization Division at the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Dr. Jeffrey McFarland; Surveillance Expert, Member of the Global Surveillance Task Team, Cessation Risk Team, and nOPV2 working group from the WHO EMR POL Team Dr. Muhammad Obaid ul Islam; Public Health Expert and Member of Strategic Advisory Group of Experts (SAGE) Dr. Ezzeddine Mohsni; and Sudan National EPI Manager and Associated professor at Nile University Sudan Dr. Mawahib Jubarah.
The session was facilitated by Public Health Expert, Ex-SAGE Co-Chair, and Current Chair of WHO EMRO Regional Verification Commission for Measles and Rubella Elimination Prof. Hyam Nicola Bashour. Prof. Bashour who started the proceedings with a brief introduction on COVID-19 and its impact on immunization systems. She introduced the webinar focus and talked about the immunization coverage while highlighting common challenges faced during the COVID-19 pandemic. She then welcomed the audience and presented the guest speakers.
In his presentation, Dr. McFarland shared global COVID-19 statistics. He mentioned that during the pandemic, many countries reported health services disruption. Dr. McFarland introduced the Supplementary Immunization Activities (SIAs) during COVID-19 and their three phases namely: the emergency phase, the resumption phase, and the post-pandemic phase. He mentioned that case detection has decreased in WPR, SEAR, EMR because of the pandemic. He ended his presentation by speaking about measles surveillance and how a variety of factors could affect the decrease of measles cases, and how it is difficult to determine the impact of COVID-19 on the non-measles discard rate.
The second presenter, Dr. Obaid ul Islam, shed light on the COVID-19 situation and related statistics in the EMR. He further talked about the SIA program and how it has been in the emergency phase since early March, where there was a significant increase in the number of cases and infected countries at the same time. He added that all SIAs were halted, however, critical functions like surveillance continued in the region. He further stated that the program is now in the resumption phase. He further explained that the program must co-exist and adjust with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The third presenter, Dr. Mohsni presented the consequences of COVID-19 on immunization activities in the region, and the main outcomes from the April 2020 WHO EMR TAG meeting, and the second immunization pulse poll in the context of COVID-19. He further explained that routine immunization is negatively affected by COVID-19. Dr. Mohsni mentioned that RI at fixed facilities is still ongoing, but that the uptake is low due to movement restrictions, health staff fear, and unwillingness to provide immunization. He also said that similarly, parents are afraid to vaccinate their children due to COVID-19.
From his end, the final presenter g, Dr. Jubarah, presented the country profile for Sudan and the increased risk of polio (cVDPV) and other VPDs during the COVID-19 pandemic and shared success stories from Sudan. She further explained that the country’s coverage was affected negatively due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She also mentioned that Sudan reported a total of 19 cVDPV2 cases and six environmental samples. She highlighted that the detection of this outbreak got delayed for four months, thus increased the risk of polio and other VPDs outbreaks. She also mentioned some challenges that affected the VPDs reporting during in the country during the pandemic.
Following the four presentations, Prof. Bashour ended the session by thanking the speakers and the audience. She wrapped up the webinar with some key messages, during which she stated: that immunization is one of the most effective public health interventions and that it should not be disrupted due to any emergencies. She added that immunization services should be continued and supported by an efficient supply chain. She mentioned that countries must respond to COVID-19 while continuing to build stronger immunization systems to reduce the risk of VPD outbreaks. She also highlighted that it is essential to invest more in routine immunization and SIAs, epidemiological surveillance, data management, and EPI related research.
A total of 218 persons attended the webinar, deeming the seventh webinar in the “EMPHNET WEBi Series” initiative a success. These sessions serve as a virtual dialogue opportunity that engages a broad range of audiences in an online discussion space. They bring to the forefront of public health issues and challenges affecting the EMR.