First polio case in Malawi in 30 years puts Kenya on high alert 

Polio vaccine

A medic administers a polio vaccine to a child in Mandera in May 2021.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • The three-year-old girl from Lilongwe experienced onset of paralysis last November.
  • Strain detected in Malawi linked to the one circulating in Sindh Province in Pakistan since October 2019.

Kenya is on high alert after a polio case was detected in a child in Lilongwe, Malawi. The World Health Organization (WHO) says the case is the first of type 1 wild poliovirus (WPVI) in Africa in more than five years. Malawi last recorded a case of wild poliovirus in 1992.

Dr Peter Borus, who heads the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) polio laboratory, said there is already heightened surveillance at all entry points in the country.

He said polio experts would meet today to discuss and check the country’s preparedness in case of an outbreak.

“We have received the polio alert and put everything in place in terms of surveillance. The polio team is also meeting [today],” Dr Borus, who is also attached to WHO, said.

Laboratory analysis shows that the strain detected in Malawi is linked to the one circulating in Sindh Province in Pakistan since October 2019. Polio remains endemic in Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

Risk of importing virus

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) said the case in Lilongwe was confirmed in a three-year-old girl who experienced the onset of paralysis last November.

Sequencing of the virus conducted in February by the National Institute for Communicable Diseases in South Africa and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed it as WPV1.

“Detection of WPV1 outside the world’s two remaining endemic countries, Pakistan and Afghanistan, is a serious concern and underscores the importance of prioritising immunisation,” GPEI said.

Africa was declared free of wild polio in August 2020, and WHO said the new case did not affect that status. 

“As long as wild polio exists anywhere in the world, all countries remain at risk of importing the virus,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa.

Kenya has not reported any cases of WPV1 since 2014. However, two circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus type 2 (cVDPV2) positive environmental samples were reported, one in 2020 and another last year. The viruses were linked to the Banadir outbreak in Somalia.