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SA must maintain polio-free status


The reasons behind WHO’s decision revolved around concerns about South African surveillance systems and immunisation rates.

SOUTH Africa has been urged to ensure that it does not lose its polio-free status again, as was the case in 2017 when deficiencies in the country’s routine immunisation coverage and surveillance systems resulted in the rescinding of the country’s polio-free status.

This warning follows the announcement by the national Department of Health in September that the World Health Organisation’s African Regional Certification Commission (ARCC) had certified South Africa as a polio-free country.

According to Kimberley-based Dorothy-Anne Howitson, an advisory board member of the National Council of and for Persons with Disabilities (NCPD) and a polio survivor, not many South Africans are aware of the fact that the World Health Organisation (WHO) quietly withdrew South Africa’s certification in 2017, making it one of seven African countries not certified polio-free.

The reasons behind WHO’s decision revolved around concerns about South African surveillance systems and immunisation rates.

According to Dr Melinda Suchard, head of the Centre for Vaccines and Immunology at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) and a lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand, the surveillance systems problem originates with health professionals, mainly in high-volume hospitals, where not all patients presenting with “acute flaccid paralysis”, the main sign of polio, are thoroughly checked.

“Not enough cases with neurological weakness were being identified, notified and investigated, with stool samples sent to the NICD,” Suchard adds.

Howitson pointed out that the immunisation rate problem is based on the WHO’s and UN Children’s Fund estimate that only 75% of children in South Africa are vaccinated.

“Seventy-five percent of children vaccinated is not something to be proud of,” Howitson said.

In response to the withdrawal of South Africa’s certification, a number of measures were put in place to address weaknesses in the systems.

Howitson said progress has been made in ensuring that all children are protected from polio through routine immunisation.

Based on these actions, the country’s National Certification Committee, an independent committee, expressed confidence that the country was able to achieve and sustain routine immunisation and surveillance targets, and recommended that the ARCC declare South Africa polio-free.

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