The U.N. children's agency says it is procuring nearly seven million doses of polio vaccine to inoculate children in Malawi. The action follows a confirmed polio case last month in Malawi's capital, the first reported in Africa in five years and the first in Malawi in decades.
Malawi had last reported a polio case in 1992. The country was declared polio-free in 2005 — 15 years before the African continent as a whole was declared polio-free.
But health experts said the polio strain which paralyzed a three-year-old child last month is similar to one in Pakistan, and noted that the child was not fully vaccinated against polio.
UNICEF said the planned mass immunization will target the unvaccinated as well as children previously vaccinated, so all can have full protection from the polio virus.
Rudolf Schwenk, UNICEF's representative in Malawi, said preparations are under way for the first round of vaccinations, expected to start March 21.
"We are installing new vaccine refrigerators, repairing vaccine refrigerators already in use or available at district level, and distributing vaccine carriers and cold boxes," he said.
George Jobe, executive director for the Malawi Heath Equity Network, said the emphasis should be on convincing mothers to have trust in vaccines, which has eroded because of misconceptions associated with COVID-19 vaccines.
"There is need for more awareness raising by government of Malawi, different partners including UNICEF itself, and when doing that awareness raising, it should be made clear that vaccines for children have been there, earlier that the COVID-19 vaccine, and these are routine in Malawi," Jobe said.
Schwenk said the training of health workers and community leaders is already under way.
Malawi provides a polio vaccine that targets polio virus type 1 and type 3, following the eradication of polio virus type 2 many years back.
UNICEF said the oral polio vaccine to be administered is for wild poliovirus type 1.
The U.N. agency said the 6.9 million doses will cover the first two rounds of the mass immunization campaign in March and April. It says more vaccine is expected to cover all four rounds of the polio immunization campaign, expected to end in June.
In the meantime, experts from the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the Global Polio Eradication Initiative are working to detect any other potential cases in Malawi and neighboring countries.