Despite the unprecedented challenges of delivering basic health services in an Ebola emergency, Sierra Leone held its first public immunization and health campaign in April, reaching an estimated 1.5 million children under 5 with life-saving interventions including the polio vaccine. Liberia has now followed, with a week long campaign at the beginning of May to vaccinate more than 600,000 children against polio and measles.
The interruption of crucial immunization services for the past year has created an alarming gap in immunity in countries with drastically weakened health services. Filling this gap is one of the first steps Liberia and Sierra Leone are taking towards rebuilding health infrastructure. With a polio-free Africa closer than it has ever been, with no case since August 2014, reaching vulnerable populations and strengthening surveillance is now the highest priority for the GPEI across the continent. While polio services have been suspended, the polio infrastructure has been essential in the Ebola response, providing support for community engagement, disease surveillance and coordination of the response.
“Such basic cost-effective interventions save thousands of lives at the best of times, but with the Ebola outbreak, fewer mothers and children have been visiting health facilities to get this free treatment,” said Dr. Abu Bakarr Fofanah, Minister of Health and Sanitation in Sierra Leone. The closure of the outbreak in Liberia on 9 May provides a much needed opportunity to begin to rebuild trust in communities, to restore services and to ensure that these countries are protected against polio, seizing on this narrow window of opportunity to offer children across Africa a polio-free future.