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The Global Polio Eradication Initiative statement on type 1 wild poliovirus in Malawi

- Wits University

The GPEI is supporting Malawian health authorities to assess the situation and to begin urgent immunization in the subregion to mitigate any risk of spread.

As a result of ongoing disease surveillance, the Global Polio Laboratory Network (GPLN) has confirmed the presence of type 1 wild poliovirus (WPV1) in a child suffering from paralysis in Tsabango, Lilongwe, Malawi.

Analysis shows that the virus is genetically linked to WPV1 that had circulated in Pakistan’s Sindh province in October 2019.

The three-year-old girl experienced onset of paralysis on 19 November 2021, and stool specimens were collected for testing on 26 and 27 November. Complete sequencing of the virus conducted in February 2022 by the National Institute for Communicable Diseases in South Africa and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed this case as WPV1.

Detection of WPV1 outside the world’s two remaining endemic countries, Pakistan and Afghanistan, is a serious concern and underscores the importance of prioritizing polio immunization activities. Until polio is fully eradicated, all countries remain at risk of importation.

The GPEI is supporting health authorities in Malawi to conduct a thorough assessment of the situation and begin urgent immunization activities in the subregion to mitigate any risk of spread. Environmental surveillance measures are also being expanded in Malawi and neighboring countries to detect any other potential cases.

Professor Helen Rees is the chair of the World Health Organization (WHO) Emergency Committee on Polio that was convened in 2014 under International Health Regulations. At that time there was a resurgence in international spread of wild poliovirus and the emergency committee declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern aimed at refocusing global attention on polio eradication efforts.

Professor Helen Rees

Rees said: “For many years the GPEI programme has been working to eradicate polio. While the numbers of wild poliovirus cases have been massively reduced worldwide, this is a reminder that polio can resurface at any time if we don’t continue global efforts to eradicate the virus. This tragic case of paralysis in a young child is a reminder of the life changing impact that polio can have on children and families.”

As an imported case from Pakistan, this detection does not affect the WHO African Region’s wild poliovirus-free certification status officially marked in August 2020. Malawi last recorded a case of wild polio in 1992. The polio eradication programme has seen importations from endemic countries to regions that have been certified wild polio-free in the past and has moved quickly to successfully stop transmission of the virus in these areas.

Polio anywhere is a threat to children everywhere. Now is the time for all parties to recommit ending all forms of polio for good.  

About GPEI

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative is a public-private partnership led by national governments with six partners – the World Health Organization (WHO), Rotary International, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Gavi, the vaccine alliance. Its goal is to eradicate polio worldwide.

About Professor Helen Rees

  • Member, International Health Regulations Roster of Experts, 2006 to date.
  • Chair, WHO AFRO Regional Immunization Technical Advisory Group (RITAG), 2013 to date.
  • Chair, WHO International Health Regulations (IHR) Committee on Polio, 2014 to date.

Professor Helen Rees is Executive Director of the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute (WRHI), University of the Witwatersrand, the largest research Institute at Wits University. Rees is an ad hominem Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology and Co-Director of the Wits African Leadership in Vaccinology Expertise (ALIVE) flagship programme. She is an Honorary Professor at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and an Honorary Fellow at Murray Edwards College, Cambridge University.