More than 50 million children worldwide have missed their essential polio immunisations this year, after door-to-door vaccination campaigns were paused and medical staff redirected amid the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Experts say the suspension of immunisations — which were halted because they did not comply with global physical distancing recommendations — could have a particularly worrisome impact for the Pacific and Southeast Asia, because of the region’s weak health systems and poor immunisation rates.

While stopping polio vaccinations was “necessary” given the unparalleled speed of COVID-19 infections through March, April and May, the decision is expected to increase the likelihood of future polio cases significantly.

"When vaccination campaigns are delayed it becomes harder to maintain high immunity against polio, thus leaving children vulnerable to infection and serious illnesses,” Luo Dapeng, a World Health Organisation country representative in Papua New Guinea, told Global Citizen. “The COVID-19 response has necessitated the postponement of polio immunisation campaigns in countries such as the Philippines and Malaysia, and has caused the delay of a preventive polio immunisation campaign in Papua New Guinea.”

In 2018, Papua New Guinea recorded its first case of polio in 18 years.

A diagnosis of vaccine-derived poliovirus was confirmed, which is an extremely rare, mutated strain of the weaker poliovirus used in vaccinations. This form of polio develops in regions with inadequate sanitation, insufficient access to clean water and low immunisation rates.

In 2019, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines similarly reported vaccine-derived cases for the first time in decades.

Investigations found that 23 of 199 children who lived in close contact to the first Malaysian child to be infected had not been vaccinated. In the Philippines, just 40% of children under the age of 5 have had the polio injection. Full vaccine coverage in Indonesia sits at around 80%.

Read the full article about the lack of polio vaccines by Madeleine Keck at Global Citizen.