WHA76: Countries Commit to Increased Polio Immunisation


Countries expressed concern at an uptick in polio cases last year and discussed ways to double down on routine immunizations – interrupted by the pandemic and conflicts – at Thursday’s World Health Assembly. Polio is currently the only official global public health emergency. 

Afghanistan and Pakistan are the last two remaining countries where the virus is endemic, WHO has said. In 2022, Afghanistan reported two new cases while Pakistan reported 20. Pakistan which has also reported a new case in 2023, said it, “continues to make consistent progress towards stopping the transmission of poliovirus.”

The virus has been found to be in circulation across 31 countries in three regions, threatening to roll back hard fought for gains over several decades.

“We are only safe once everyone is safe,” Germany said, as it highlighted the need for global cooperation. The United Kingdom asked countries to guarantee the safety of teams conducting routine immunisation, an issue in both countries where poliovirus remains endemic. 

Australia commended the work of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) in Afghanistan for operating under challenging conditions as the ruling Taliban continues to make it near impossible for women to work. 

“We commend GPEI in Afghanistan despite increasingly stringent bans on women working for NGOs and UN agencies. Ensuring the safety of all frontline polio workers should continue to be a high priority. The risk that women may no longer be able to perform house-to-house campaigns must be mitigated to sustain high coverage and reach zero dose children,” Australia said. 

The scarcity of women healthcare workers in some areas of Pakistan has also affected routine immunisation, leaving blind spots. 

“The Mehsud belt in southern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa remains a persistent challenge as no polio campaign has been conducted in debates since last months,” Pakistan said. To counter this issue the country said it is focusing on entry and exit points to the belt as well as areas around it where security remains a concern. 

Iran, which borders Afghanistan flagged concerns about the influx of migrants in recent years due to the conflict in the country and called it a challenging situation. Iran also said that it continues to face barriers when accessing vaccines, and asked for greater WHO support for its national laboratories. 

Canada assured its financial support to the polio campaign and highlighted the need to focus not just on countries where polio is endemic but also other countries that might need support. “We fear that other vulnerable countries that do not have the resources to organize effective campaigns are further exposed to outbreaks and the risk of outbreaks,” the country said.

Combat the infodemic in health information and support health policy reporting from the global South. Our growing network of journalists in Africa, Asia, Geneva and New York connect the dots between regional realities and the big global debates, with evidence-based, open access news and analysis. To make a personal or organisational contribution click here on PayPal.