Polio, a highly contagious and sometimes deadly virus that can cause paralysis, was nearly eradicated in recent decades. Country after country was crossed off the list until the wild poliovirus remained endemic only in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
But a steep decline in childhood immunization rates since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the challenge of reaching the growing number of children affected by conflict and displacement, and vaccine misinformation have led to new polio cases reported in places that have been polio-free for years, if not decades.
Unvaccinated children, particularly those under age 5, are most at risk. There is no cure, and only one form of prevention: the polio vaccine.
Vaccinated children are protected for life. But to eliminate polio, every child in every household must be vaccinated.
As long as polio is a threat anywhere, it is a threat everywhere.
Unvaccinated children under 5 are most at risk
In 1985, Rotary International launched a global effort to immunize the world’s children against polio, followed by the establishment of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) in 1988. A public-private partnership led by national governments and supported by six core partners — UNICEF, the World Health Organization (WHO), Rotary International, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance — GPEI was born out of the world’s commitment to reach every child in every country with the polio vaccine.
This year, with the goal of ending polio everywhere still within reach, UNICEF, Rotary and other GPEI partners are stepping up efforts to vaccinate every child.
Crucial to those efforts are the individuals who go door-to-door, bringing polio vaccines to children who might otherwise be missed. These individuals, many of them community health workers, also provide sometimes reluctant parents with critical information on the safety and efficacy of vaccines.
Community health workers like Aissatou Moussa in Niger are trained to answer parents’ questions and assuage their fears.
“Many people do not understand the dangers of polio, and we must sensitize them,” Moussa says. “Many ask why we would give away the vaccine for free, if it is such a good thing.”
Community mobilizers combat vaccine hesitancy
At each home, Moussa follows the same protocol. “First, we greet everyone, enquiring after their and their children’s health. The elders give us chairs to sit on, while we explain how the vaccination process works. If parents agree, the vaccination team will drop by to vaccinate the household’s children under 5.”
Najaatu Musa leads a house-to-house vaccination team in Minna, Niger State, northern Nigeria. “I became a volunteer community mobilizer because I saw the need to help women in our community and their children,” Musa says. “I teach them the importance of ante-natal care and routine immunization, so that when they give birth, they’ll know when to take the child for vaccination.”
In 2020, Nigeria was officially certified wild poliovirus-free, the last country in Africa to achieve that status. The milestone victory wouldn’t have been possible without the dedicated efforts of thousands of health workers, volunteer vaccinators, traditional and religious leaders, parents and country leaders, who all share a commitment to a common goal: protecting every child from polio.
This year, despite setbacks, the global fight to eradicate polio continues. At a pledging moment on Oct. 18 at the World Health Summit in Berlin, world leaders confirmed support for global efforts to overcome the final hurdles to polio eradication, vaccinate 370 million children annually and continue disease surveillance across 50 countries.
“Children deserve to live in a polio-free world,” said UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell. “But as we have seen this year with painful clarity, until we reach every community and vaccinate every child, the threat of polio will persist.”
Top photo: A father holds his 2-year-old son while he receives his polio vaccine in Masulama village, Karonga District, northern Malawi. In February 2022, the country announced its first polio case in 30 years. UNICEF procured 6.8 million polio vaccine doses for approximately 2.9 million children under the age of 5 in Malawi. Children receive multiple doses to achieve full protection. © UNICEF/UN0700326/
Children’s hospital in Newfoundland and Labrador is cancelling some surgeries
A children’s hospital in the capital of Newfoundland and Labrador is cancelling some surgeries and appointments starting Monday.
Health officials say it’s due to a high level of respiratory illness.
It is unclear how many surgeries and appointments at Janeway Children’s Health and Rehabilitation Centre in St. John‘s will be affected.
Residents who are not experiencing a medical emergency are being asked to avoid visiting an emergency department.
Older adults amongst the most susceptible to RSV
TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — The risk of Respiratory Syncytial Virus, also known as RSV, typically flies under the radar when it comes to older adults.
With 10 times the amount of older adults being hospitalized for RSV than in previous years, understanding the risk is important for those who are more susceptible.
“RSV in older adults starts out with the same symptoms as younger adults. With common cold-like symptoms- nasal congestion, sniffles, low-grade temperature, sore throat, dry cough, tiredness. These symptoms will last for a few days,” Mary Derby, Nurse Manager at Pima County Health Department explained.
“However, an older adult or an adult with chronic medical conditions such as heart and lung disease- they can experience more serious symptoms, such as getting a high fever, dehydration, and real difficulty breathing.”
Derby says if these symptoms lead to extreme chest pain, loss of color in the face, or struggle to breathe- seek medical attention immediately.
It is also important for those assisting an older adult to be aware of the risk imposed on those more susceptible.
“If you’re caring for older adults, please wash your hands frequently. Watch for your own symptoms and stay away if you’re experiencing symptoms. Consider wearing a mask to protect that older adult, because these older adults do need that protection… Take it seriously,” Derby emphasized.
Upward 6,000 to 10,000 older adults die each year from RSV.
As we make our way through the holidays, be sure to stay up to date with COVID-19 and Influenza vaccines, stay home if you are not feeling well, wash your hands often and for those at higher risk, wear a fitted mask around others.
AIDS day walk in North Battleford aims to `banish that stigma’
By Julia Peterson
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
On World AIDS Day, advocates in the Battlefords gathered to raise awareness about how the virus affects people in their community, and how people can get help and treatment, if they need it.
“HIV is completely preventable in today’s society, with all the advances in medication,” said Battle River Treaty 6 Health Centre’s HIV project coordinator, Cymric Leask. “But due to a lot of intersecting factors, especially due to COVID in the past couple of years, our HIV numbers have skyrocketed.”
In 2021, more than 200 new cases of HIV were diagnosed in the province, even while testing, treatment and outreach were reduced during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Saskatchewan has the highest rate of new HIV infections in Canada, and has had the highest annual rate in the country for more than a decade.
The proportion of new HIV cases in rural areas is rising, too.
“Here up north, there are such large barriers to access to care,” said Leask. “We do have some great resources here in North Battleford but it’s still very hard to access the proper care for HIV.”
For example, getting started on HIV medication requires a visit with a communicable disease doctor, but there is no communicable disease doctor based in the Battlefords. Instead, that doctor visits the community only once every four months.
Another barrier Leask has found is that many people still have an outdated understanding of what HIV is, who is at risk and how treatment works.
“Especially here in rural areas, it’s stigmatized as something that only affects gay or bisexual men, men who have sex with men,” Leask said.
Today in Saskatchewan, men and women are diagnosed with HIV at almost equal rates, and two thirds of new cases are passed through injection drug use.
Treatments are much easier to manage than they used to be; some only involve taking one pill a day.
But the enduring stigma around HIV makes it harder for people to find community and support.
“People don’t talk about it,” said Jackie Kennedy, executive director of the Battlefords Indian and Metis Friendship Centre. “I think they’re afraid to. A lot of people don’t disclose that information (about their HIV status) because they are afraid to be judged.”
As more people continue to be diagnosed with HIV in Saskatchewan every year, groups and organizations in the Battlefords are working hard to make it easier for people to get testing, treatment, information and harm reduction supplies.
“We want to banish that stigma of how it used to be,” said Leask. “It’s not like that anymore.”
Julia Peterson is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter with THE STARPHOENIX
The LJI program is federally funded.
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