Malawi Declares Health Emergency Following Polio Case Discovery

Health authorities in Malawi say a 3-year-old girl is paralyzed after contracting polio, the first known case in Africa in more than five years and the first in Malawi in three decades. Authorities say the child was infected by a strain of poliovirus that matches a strain found in Pakistan.

Until this week, Malawi had last reported a polio case in 1992. The southern African country was declared polio-free in 2005 — 15 years before the whole continent achieved the same status.

Dr. Charles Mwansambo, secretary for health in Malawi, told local radio Friday that the poliovirus strain detected in Malawi came from abroad.

“This patient is Malawian but the strain of poliovirus she has is not Malawian. It was first identified in Pakistan. So, this is an imported strain.”

So far, the girl, who lives in the capital, Lilongwe, is the only identified case of polio in the country. Mwansambo said all those who came into contact with the girl have tested negative for the poliovirus.

However, the Ministry of Health said in a statement Thursday evening that it has intensified surveillance for the disease, especially among children up to fifteen years of age. President Lazarus Chakwera has declared a national health emergency.

Polio is a contagious and life-threatening disease. The poliovirus can infect a person’s spinal cord, leaving them partially or fully paralyzed.

Dr. Janet Kayita, the country representative for the World Health Organization in Malawi, says the alarm is justified.

“Because as long as there is polio in Lilongwe, it is a threat not just in Malawi, it’s a threat in the region and it’s a public health event of international concern.”

She says the WHO is deploying a team to Malawi to enhance disease surveillance, detect and identify cases and strengthen routine immunization.

“The nature of having identified a child with polio, highlights the need to make sure that vaccination campaign is mounted, making that every last child under five years of age is reached with polio vaccine,”  Kavita said.

Malawi health expert Maziko Matemba says the government should consider increasing budget allocations of the health sector.

“So that some of these shocks are minimized or they are contained before they occur because they also have an effect on the economy of the country, as we have seen with COVID,” Matemba said.

President Chakwera said in a statement Thursday that after experiencing various natural disasters like Cyclone Idai, COVID-19 and Tropical Storm Ana early this year, a polio outbreak is the last thing any Malawian would want to hit the country.

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