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Malaysia resumes polio response amidst COVID-19 pandemic

Polio response activities have resumed in Sabah State and the Federal Territory of Labuan in June 2020, led by the Sabah State Health Department and the Federal Territory of Labuan Health Department. The polio response was temporarily downscaled in Sabah State and delayed in Federal Territory of Labuan due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently polio immunization campaigns are well underway in every district to reach all children under 13 years of age regardless of their previous immunization status.

To date, there are a total of four polio cases reported in Sabah and 25 environmental samples have tested positive for polio in Sabah and Labuan. Two different types of poliovirus have been detected in Sabah and one type have been detected in Labuan, with the Ministry of Health Malaysia announcing last December 2019 the first paralysis case of polio seen in over two decades. The polioviruses detected in Malaysia have been genetically linked with those circulating in the Philippines.

20200824-Polio - body 1
Credit: MOH / State Health Department Sabah

The World Health Organization and UNICEF have been working with the Ministry of Health to respond to the outbreak by providing supplies, technical guidance and risk communication and community engagement support. In February 2020, WHO and UNICEF also provided 2.5 million doses of monovalent type 2 oral polio vaccine to Malaysia.

“Like COVID-19, polio continues to be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern and health authorities are taking coordinated efforts to bring the outbreak to an end quickly,” said Dr Lo Ying-Ru, WHO Representative to Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam and Singapore. “Despite the ongoing pandemic, we must do whatever it takes to continue to protect our children against polio, and we can only do that through multiple doses of the polio vaccine.”

COVID-19 posed many challenges in reaching every child but now that movement restrictions have been eased, health authorities are working to ensure all children, including citizens and non-citizens, will have access to multiple doses polio vaccine. They have also reinforced surveillance systems to detect the presence and circulation of poliovirus in the environment as poliovirus can be spread through the faecal-oral route (e.g. contaminated water or food).

The pandemic has also put children at risk of suffering from other vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles, rubella, and diphtheria. Parents and caregivers are encouraged to receive all routine immunizations at their local health centres. To keep the public safe from COVID-19, health centres have implemented robust infection, prevention and control measures at health care clinics as well as ensured preventive measures are in place such as physical distancing, use of masks and hand hygiene.

“Frontline health workers are real life heroes in the fight against COVID-19, polio and beyond. They work to ensure facilities are safe and preventive measures are in place, while supporting parents and caregivers to make informed decisions so that all children are fully vaccinated against polio and other vaccine-preventable diseases,” added Dr Lo.


20200824-Polio - body 2 Credit: MOH / State Health Department Sabah