Accidental side effect: COVID-19 pandemic could give polio ‘a fresh start’

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Credit: Unicef

The world’s total number of confirmed Covid-19 cases is closing in on 5 million. But an accidental side effect of the pandemic—an indefinite pause in the worldwide campaign to eradicate polio—could dwarf its toll by allowing the almost-vanquished disease to get a fresh start.

At the end of March, on the advice of a World Health Organization panel of experts, mass vaccination campaigns against polio and measles were put on hold to prevent spreading the virus.

The math behind these decisions is tricky. In April, a modeling project at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine tried to calculate the hazards of taking children to be vaccinated, and potentially exposing them, their families, and health care workers to Covid-19, versus leaving them unvaccinated, and thus risking them catching these preventable diseases. In a paper that is still online as a preprint (not yet peer-reviewed), researchers in the Centre for Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases estimated that some deaths from Covid-19 exposures would happen—but anywhere from 37 to 549 other deaths would be avoided, because children would not develop diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, hepatitis, meningitis, or yellow fever.

Related article:  We've almost eradicated Polio. But recent measles outbreaks show us why the battle isn't over.

“Our messaging has been that we need to maintain essential services like immunization,” says [the WHO’s] Dr. Fiona Braka.

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