In recent years, vaccine misinformation has arisen rapidly, especially amidst the COVID-19 pandemic; this has become a serious health concern. Polio vaccination in Tajikistan was successful for decades, but the country experienced a sudden outbreak in 2021. With the help of UNICEF, the country immediately responded to the crisis and introduced mass polio vaccination in Tajikistan which helped approximately 1.4 million children in the country. The community health centers and healthcare workers of the country played a major role in the success of this vaccination program. Their efforts provide a great model on how to combat vaccine misinformation through community and education.
Polio in Tajikistan
Polio, also referred to as poliomyelitis, typically impacts children under 5, and can spread either through people or contaminated water supplies. Since 1988, cases of polio globally have been reduced by 99.8% and the only countries that are still endemic are Pakistan and Afghanistan. Although there is no cure for the disease, effective vaccines for polio exist and are the primary way of fighting it.
Tajikistan, a country that had been free of polio for decades and was certified polio-free by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2020, experienced a sudden emergence of the disease in 2021. That year, 34 children contracted polio and became paralyzed, while 26 more tested positive without developing paralysis. For diseases like polio, even one case could be an outbreak and thus, necessitates an immediate response. The type of polio detected in Tajikistan was the vaccine-derived poliovirus type 2 (cVDPV2).
Organized Response to the Crisis
Response to the polio outbreak was swift and effective. UNICEF coordinated with the Tajikistan government and provided 4.6 million doses of an oral polio vaccine and a mass immunization program began quickly. The Ministry of Health and Social Protection of the Population increased poliovirus surveillance, conducted a thorough risk assessment regarding the scale of outbreak and kind of vaccine response required and was quick in verifying the preparedness of the immunization program.
The first wave of polio vaccination in Tajikistan began in February 2021, with a second round beginning a few months later in June and lasting until September 2021. With both waves, an extensive program of social mobilization began to reach groups most at risk of infection such as internal migrants and unregistered children, according to WHO.
Community health centers played a critical role in the success of the immunization program by providing the necessary vaccine education to the population. Despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the centers thrived and helped to foster an organized response to the health crises.
Learning from Tajikistan
Since the immunization program began, 1.4 million children got their vaccine against polio, and Tajikistan once again became a polio-free zone in April 2022 according to WHO. Healthcare workers and community health centers played integral roles in the success of the immunization program by reaching the most vulnerable segments of the Tajik population. Moreover, the government of Tajikistan did its part by responding to the polio crisis in a timely manner. Tajikistan’s eradication of polio is an illustrious example of how governments and global organizations can work together to end polio.
– Umaima Munir