Restoring Trust: Polio Vaccines in Liberia
After enduring a surge in COVID-19 cases during the month of June 2021, Liberia may be experiencing some relief in its battle to beat the pandemic. According to Dr. Francis Karteh, a chief medical officer in Liberia, the country’s COVID-19 cases declined in the week leading up to July 12, 2021. However, Karteh also emphasized that the Liberian people must remain diligent in their COVID-19 prevention measures. The highly contagious Delta variant may regain strength if individuals become too relaxed. Nevertheless, this news offers hope for the country’s desire to move toward reopening businesses. But, even as COVID-19 infections decline in Liberia, vaccine hesitancy persists. This distrust of vaccines does not solely apply to the coronavirus vaccine though. UNICEF is currently undertaking efforts to reassure Liberians about the safety of polio vaccines in Liberia.
History and New Vaccine Hesitancy
In 2008, Liberia declared itself a polio-free country as a result of its mass vaccination success. However, Liberia recently discovered a circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus (VDPV) strain that stems from what was originally contained in the oral polio vaccine but has evolved to behave “more like the wild or naturally occurring virus.” Consequently, VDPV is more transmittable to the unvaccinated, especially in areas with inadequate sanitary conditions.
For this reason, the eradication of the poliovirus relies on the continued vaccination of children. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic forced Liberia to halt immunization programs, and as poliovirus infections increased, in February 2021, Liberia’s Ministry of Health announced the poliovirus outbreak as a “public health emergency” for the country.
On top of this, as Liberia begins to resume its polio vaccination operations, individuals are more hesitant about the polio vaccines. Following a year of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation circulating the globe, many Liberians wonder if one can trust any vaccine. Comfort Morphe, a midwife at Hydro MERCI Clinic, says she can “feel the weight [of the misinformation].”
Additionally, Mohamed Shariff, a teacher in the Liberian city of Monrovia, said that the campaign for polio vaccines in Liberia has had to evolve since there have been “so many refusals.” Many find the polio vaccine hesitancy peculiar since Liberia has “been using [the poliovirus vaccine] for years.” With vaccine uncertainty festering throughout the country, it is more challenging to quell the current rise in poliovirus infections.
Fortunately, in an effort to reduce vaccine hesitancy, UNICEF is partnering with Liberia’s Ministry of Health to communicate factual polio vaccine information through “radio talk shows, community engagement meetings, SMS” as well as posters and banners. The use of SMS notifications is especially beneficial since some communities in Liberia do not have stable internet access.
Volunteers also use the door-to-door approach to speak with parents on the importance of vaccinating children. Ummu Paasewe, for example, who works for Liberia’s Ministry of Health as a community mobilization officer, described how her team assures mothers that the vaccine is “the same kind of oral polio vaccine but more advanced” to combat this specific variation of the poliovirus. As a mother herself, Paasewe’s children are vaccinated and she contends that “immunization is a preventative method.”
Other countries also see the benefits of supporting Liberia’s vaccination efforts. The Japanese government has supplied UNICEF with $2.7 million since 2020 to support women’s and children’s health in Liberia. Moreover, one of the Japanese government’s chief objectives is to get Liberians vaccinated against the poliovirus and COVID-19.
UNICEF representative to Liberia, Laila Omar Gad, stated that “just one child affected by polio is a risk to all children.” However, UNICEF volunteers remain optimistic and report that they have convinced many Liberian families about the polio vaccine’s safety and reliability. Through the dedication of Liberia’s Ministry of Health and support from UNICEF and Japan, vaccinating communities against the poliovirus looks to be an achievable goal.
– Madeline Murphy