Unicef health specialist makes the case for ensuring immunisation programmes reach children living far away from health facilities
The discovery of Polio virus in Eastleigh in Nairobi has pushed back Kenya’s efforts to be declared polio-free by three years.
The Ministry of Health has now embarked on an aggressive vaccination campaign efforts to try to avert a potential outbreak of the infectious disease.
The ongoing exercise in Nairobi targets 800,000 children below five years. Two more polio vaccination drives will be conducted in Nairobi and 11 other counties in June and July.
The Business Daily spoke to Dr Peter Okoth, a health specialist from Unicef, to get insights about the disease and how Kenya can win the fight against it.
How does Polio spread?
Poliomyelitis (polio) is a highly infectious disease caused by the Polio virus, which mainly affects young children. The Polio virus is spread from person to person mainly through ingestion of faecal matter from an infected person.
An individual can also be infected after taking food, water or substances contaminated with faecal matter containing the virus.
The virus multiplies in the intestines, from where it can invade the nervous system and can cause paralysis (weakness of the arms or legs or both) or even death.
Regarding the Polio virus type 2 discovered in Eastleigh, how did the virus end up in the sewers and what is the looming danger?
The presence of the Polio virus in the sewer system means that there is someone infected in the area who is passing it into the toilets that drains in the sewer. The virus may therefore spread to other children who ingest faecal matter from those who are infected.
A majority of children with the virus do not show symptoms and signs of polio but are capable of infecting other children.
How can the situation be contained?
The only solution is to ensure all children are protected through immunisation and ensuring adequate hygiene is observed. Vaccinating all children with multiple doses of oral polio vaccine will ensure that they have adequate protection in case they ingest faecal matter containing the virus. This is why the government with support of Unicef, the WHO and other partners are conducting a vaccination campaign from Wednesday (May 10) to May 13 in Nairobi County.
How is Polio diagnosed?
Most children infected with polio do not show signs of the disease so they easily pass it on to other children undetected so long as they have the virus in their intestine.
The initial symptoms of polio include fever, fatigue, headache, vomiting, stiffness in the neck, and pain in the limbs. In a small proportion of cases, the disease causes paralysis or weakness of the arms and legs or both, which is often permanent. There is no cure for polio, it can only be prevented by immunisation.
What are the normal polio symptoms that people need to be on the alert for?
Paralysis or weakness of the arms or legs, or both, in children aged below 15 years that occur suddenly and not associated with accidents.
In cases where a child is found to have the virus, what steps are taken to contain it?
The immediate step is to get the child infected with polio to a doctor for support, including physiotherapy to help regain movement of the limbs or minimise the severity of paralysis. The health authorities immediately alert the affected community and investigate if there are more cases in the community that have not been detected. A vaccination campaign is then undertaken to ensure all the children in areas at risk are protected against the spread of polio.
Is there a maximum number of times that a child can receive a polio vaccine? When is it considered that a child has completed polio vaccination?
It is recommended that all children receive at least three doses of polio vaccine by the time they are one year old. Additional vaccine doses are, however, required to boost the protection of children against the virus, especially when there is a virus circulating in the community or neighbouring countries or regions.
The vaccine is safe and not harmful when given multiple times. The more children are vaccinated, the more all children are protected from the disease.
Are there any long-term concerns for persons who contracted paralytic polio in childhood?
While most infections with the Polio virus are mild, a few children develop paralysis of the arms or legs or both. Polio is also known to cause death amongst those not adequately protected through vaccination. Children with polio paralysis suffer discrimination and stigma, inability to enjoy and participate in play like other children, education may be affected, and they may suffer long-term consequences of lack of employment and poverty.
How is Kenya faring in Polio control and what needs to be done to eradicate the disease in the country?
Kenya has made a lot of progress towards polio eradication. More children are receiving vaccination than they were in the year 2000. No child with polio paralysis has been detected in Kenya since 2014.
There is, however, evidence that many children are not receiving all the doses of the polio vaccine. These children are at risk of polio and every effort must be made to ensure all children are immunised.
Every effort must be made to ensure children residing far away from health facilities and those from poor families are vaccinated.