Polio eradication

Supporting Access to Immunization through Supplementary Immunization Activities

By Abubakar Shehu and Emerald Awa- Agwu

Supplementary Immunization Activities (SIAs) are one of the four strategies put forward by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) in 1988. In Nigeria, SIAs include Immunization Plus Days (IPDs), Outbreak Responses (OBRs) and other immunization outreaches conducted by the Nigerian government and its polio eradication partners. The aim of SIAs is to interrupt the transmission of the poliovirus by immunizing all children under five years of age with two doses of oral polio vaccine irrespective of their previous immunization status—unimmunized, partially covered or fully immunized.

A child receiving the Oral Polio Vaccine

A child receiving the Oral Polio Vaccine

SIAs are intended to complement Routine Immunization. However, in some areas, they represent the major strategy for catching unimmunized children and ensuring that they are vaccinated against polio and other vaccine-preventable diseases. Access to routine immunization services may be hindered for a variety of reasons including:

  • Challenges with cold chain equipment leading to vaccine damage and loss of potency, and eventually, unavailability of vaccines. Caregivers are often reluctant to return to health facilities where vaccines were unavailable. This results in missed opportunities to commence or complete the vaccination course.

  • Security challenges that make health facilities hard to reach by caregivers who bring children for immunization.

  • Access-related challenges such as caregivers having to travel long distances to the health facility or being unable to afford the cost of transportation

  • Wrong myths or perceptions about vaccinations such as loss of fertility as a result of vaccination.

SIAs take immunization services directly to children at their doorsteps, thereby bridging any gaps that may result from an inability to access vaccines at the health facilities. By achieving a vaccination coverage of at least 80% (that is, by vaccinating at least 80% of the targeted children with a potent vaccine), herd immunity can be achieved and the poliovirus can be deprived of the susceptible hosts which it needs to survive.

Through Supplementary Immunization Activities, children who were missed by routine immunization services can be reached with life-saving vaccines

Through Supplementary Immunization Activities, children who were missed by routine immunization services can be reached with life-saving vaccines

Prior to 2012, Nigeria had been conducting SIAs but was still recording cases of wild poliovirus (WPV). After a holistic examination of the immunization program, it was discovered that there was a huge disparity between the actual versus reported immunization coverage. Reports from independent monitoring and supervision groups showed that the actual vaccination coverage of the SIAs was much lower than the reported coverage. There were many missed settlements and an even larger number of missed children. It was discovered that some vaccination teams never visited the communities, instead, they would discard the vaccines and record false information in the tally sheets to account for the empty vials. Not only was this frustrating the polio eradication efforts, but it was also causing the health system huge losses as a result of the wasted vaccines.

It became imperative to develop a methodology to improve vaccination coverage and ensure that the vaccination teams visited all the target settlements during SIAs. This led to the development and deployment of the Vaccination Tracking System (VTS) in 2012.

VTS provides healthcare administrators and partners in the polio eradication space with daily insight into the activities of vaccination teams during SIAs by collecting passive tracks of the vaccination teams using Geographic Information Systems (GIS technology-enabled android phones and uploading them onto a dashboard for visualization. This provides stakeholders with near-live data about the geo-coverage of the vaccination campaign. The system also identifies missed settlements on a daily basis so that immediate action can be taken and the settlements can be included in the ongoing campaign. Another benefit of the VTS is that it increases the accountability of vaccination teams because the vaccinators know that they are under constant supervision. This greatly reduces the risk of data falsification.

The VTS dashboard provides decision-makers with near-real-time data about the progress of immunization campaigns and outreaches

The VTS dashboard provides decision-makers with near-real-time data about the progress of immunization campaigns and outreaches

So far, VTS has been used to track 82 supplementary immunization activities in 30 states of Nigeria. A significant proportion of these states have seen an exponential increase in the vaccination geo-coverage rates from the first campaign tracked to the last tracked campaign.

Increase in vaccination coverage rates

Increase in vaccination coverage rates

VTS makes sure that eligible children who, for any reason, are unable to receive their vaccinations through the routine immunization sessions at the health facilities, have a second chance to be protected against vaccine-preventable diseases like Polio and Meningitis.

Modelling Disease Surveillance Systems that work in Chad and Niger

By Tope Falodun and Emerald Awa-Agwu

Participants in Maradi, Niger after the training

Participants in Maradi, Niger after the training

Functional disease surveillance systems provide data that can be analyzed to yield insight for planning, project execution, monitoring, and evaluation of public health interventions. For a priority disease like Polio, surveillance systems are important because they monitor the burden of the disease and alert health systems of any increase in the occurrence of the disease in any location of implementation, ahead of time.

A key element that is often missing in disease surveillance systems is intersectoral action. In the past, the responsibility of finding, investigating, reporting and monitoring AFP cases rested solely on the disease surveillance officers (DSOs). This resulted in incomplete data because the DSOs could not cover every single community, and also manual errors as DSOs had to enter reports using paper-based tools.  Recognizing this, eHealth Africa (eHA) partnered with the World Health Organization (WHO), Novel-T, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) and the Ministries of Health in eight countries including Chad and Niger to develop the Auto- Visual AFP Detection and Reporting (AVADAR) system for improving AFP case identification and reporting. The goal of the project was to support health systems in polio-endemic and high-risk countries to find, report and investigate AFP cases using available, context-appropriate resources, in this case, community members. 

By partnering with local communities and enlisting members to serve as informants and investigators, some of the pressure on disease surveillance officers who performed all three functions of finding, investigating, reporting and monitoring suspected AFP cases were relieved. In addition, AVADAR infused digital data management and reporting innovations through the mobile application. With this, community informants report cases of suspected AFP via the AVADAR  mobile application. The investigators receive alerts of these reports on their mobile devices, locate the cases, investigate and collect stool samples for further laboratory tests in cases of true AFPs.  

In 2017, AVADAR was launched in 6 pilot districts in Chad and three pilot districts in Niger. By 2018, the project expanded to an additional three districts in both Chad and Niger. In total, eHA trained 849 and 509 community informants in Chad and Niger respectively. eHA also supported the training of 177 investigators by the WHO in Chad and 178 investigators in Niger. Within these periods, eHA supervised the activities of the informants, investigators, and technical officers, and also resolved technical issues relating to the mobile application, telecommunication, and network access on Android phones.

Chad 1st level supports going through pre-test during the transition training in Bokoro, Chad

Chad 1st level supports going through pre-test during the transition training in Bokoro, Chad

AVADAR has had a great impact on AFP surveillance, directly and disease surveillance as a whole by improving communication and information transfer.
— Mbaielde Felix, Head of Abirebi Health Area, Bokoro District, Chad

After almost three years of supporting the health systems in Chad and Niger through AVADAR, it was evident that the model worked. eHA successfully handed over the continuation of the project in the pilot districts to the Ministries of Health and the World Health Organization in Chad and Niger. A total of 109 first and second line technical support officers in the two countries, were trained to continue to handle and resolve any technical issues that may arise. 

At eHA, we support health systems to effectively monitor and eradicate communicable diseases like polio by developing and supporting the development of creative surveillance methods and innovative data management solutions.

AVADAR has allowed us to communicate with the informants, the district management team and the health delegation on the report of other diseases other than the AFP.
— Abakar Mahamat Kalbassou, Head of Abgode Health Area, Bokoro District, Chad

The Importance of High-Quality AFP Surveillance Data in the Fight to Eradicate Polio

Polio is targeted for eradication because the presence of the virus anywhere means that children everywhere are at risk. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) focuses on strengthening Acute Flaccid Paralysis (AFP) surveillance worldwide to detect and respond to the poliovirus, to build herd immunity to protect the population and to halt the transmission of the virus. The data on the spread of AFP is invaluable especially for polio-endemic countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria because it helps in determining whether they can finally be certified polio-free.

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There are four steps involved in AFP surveillance and the Auto- Visual AFP Detection and Reporting (AVADAR) project responds to the first step—finding and reporting children with AFP—in eight priority countries in Africa. In many of these countries, disease surveillance and notification officers (DSNOs) at the health facilities are unable to actively find AFP cases for reasons ranging from difficulty in accessing settlements to security challenges. AVADAR trains community informants to search for and report the presence and/or absence of children with AFP in their community, using a mobile application. The application also has an embedded video that shows a child with AFP so that community informants can better recognize an AFP case. This reduces the burden on the DSNOs and allows them to focus on confirming if the case is truly AFP or not.

How AVADAR works

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To ensure that AFP surveillance is conducted impactfully and that the AFP surveillance data collected is accurate, timely and of high quality, the GPEI defined five global indicators: Completeness of reporting, Completeness of case investigation, Completeness of follow-up, Sensitivity of surveillance and Laboratory performance.

Global Polio Eradication Initiative: AFP Surveillance indicators

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AVADAR was designed by eHealth Africa, Novel-T, the World Health Organization (WHO) and other partners, to contribute to the achievement of the above targets. Below are the measures that have been put in place to ensure the collection and use of high-quality data to track and reports suspected AFP cases, and to inform decision making for polio eradication.

  • Coverage: To decide where to site an AVADAR system, WHO carries out an assessment of the target country/districts to identify rural, hard-to-reach and underserved communities which are typically more predisposed to poliomyelitis. The AVADAR system, equipped with geospatial tracking capabilities is then deployed to community informants/ AFP reporters. This unique feature of the application helps to validate the location of the suspected AFP case, independent of the reporter.  

  • Reporting: The AVADAR application allows informants to deliver reports anywhere and anytime in order to prevent data loss and to ensure near real-time, accurate reporting.  The app is designed to be used by people with basic literacy levels and is available in eighteen local African languages for ease of understanding. A report is better able to provide insight and enhance planning or decision making when it is timely. One of the key weekly metrics captured on the AVADAR dashboard is the number of complete results that were submitted as at when due, thus ensuring that all informants are actively engaged. Informants are expected to look out for and report cases of children aged 15 years and below, who have any form of physical deformity on the limbs or arms. In the event that no AFP case has been sighted within a week, the informant must send a ‘no report’, to validate his presence on the system.  

    AVADAR has improved the rate of AFP reporting compared to the traditional system of AFP reporting. For example, between June 2017 and June 2018 in the Lake Chad Basin countries(Chad, Niger, Nigeria, and Cameroon), the AVADAR system recorded 589 supsected cases against the 213 cases recorded by the traditional AFP Surveillance system.

  • Verification: Paralysis in children can be caused by several agents including the Poliovirus. After the community informants submit their reports of suspected AFP cases, trained health workers carry out further investigations to confirm if they are true AFP cases. The WHO has designated laboratories all over target countries that are certified to test fecal samples and isolate the poliovirus. AVADAR weekly reports show how many suspected AFP cases were reported, how many were tested and the number of cases confirmed to be true AFP cases. This sort of data measures the cost of a single confirmed AFP case, the prevalence and incidence of AFP in target areas, thus enhancing the quality of AFP surveillance data for decision making.

AVADAR dashboard

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Having data on the spread of AFP in a geographic location helps with planning towards its containment. Since Poliomyelitis is mainly oral-fecally transmitted, sanitization and sensitization of the environment and inhabitants respectively can help reduce the spread of polio.  AFP data gathered across different locations has been used in making an informed decision on determining the number of health workers that can effectively manage its spread to neighboring communities. On the contrary, no data or false data could lead to health workers focusing their energy in wrong locations thereby risking the spread of polio and the extension of its existence.

Without reliable and accurate AFP surveillance data, true progress towards polio eradication cannot be measured. AVADAR’s impact in high-risk countries across Africa demonstrates how context-appropriate interventions and solutions can transform disease surveillance and emergency management systems.

One of the most important features of the AVADAR system is the engagement of over a hundred community informants per county. They are trained and equipped for the first time to provide timely reports that can be accessed at all levels from the county to the national level and beyond, thereby allowing suspected cases to be investigated in an accurate and efficient way.
— Dr Sylvester Maleghemi, WHO Polio Eradication Initiative Team Lead, South Sudan

The EOC Revolution

By Joshua Ozugbakun & Emerald Awa- Agwu

In line with eHealth Africa’s quest to add more value to the states that we live and work in, the Polio Emergency Operations Centres are being rebranded to provide much more than administrative and coordination functions to the states. 

‘’All the work that eHA does is not for ourselves but to make our partners’ work better’’
— Atef Fawaz, Deputy Director, Program Operations, Nigeria

The Emergency Operating Centres (EOCs) were created by eHealth Africa and other partners such as U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), World Health Organization (WHO), and Public Health England to serve as centers for the emergency management and response coordination of Polio and other infectious diseases in Nigeria. The EOCs are located in Abuja, Kano, Katsina, Sokoto, Kaduna, Borno, Bauchi, and Yobe states and during an outbreak, the EOCs serve as a central command and control facility responsible for carrying out the principles of emergency preparedness and emergency management.

After the establishment of the EOCs, eHealth Africa continues to support the center by ensuring that 24-hour electricity and internet access are available and that Technical/ Administrative Coordinators are on hand to ensure connectivity and the maintenance of the EOCs. However, this year, eHA decided that the Technical and Administrative Coordinators could be supporting the states in more ways. Here’s how:

 

Step 1: Capacity Building Workshop

eHealth Africa trained a total of 17 technical and admin coordinators from the 16th to 24th of April, 2018. This was the first step in the transition of eHA’s role in the EOCs from administrative to technical. The T/A Coordinators were trained on Geographical Information Systems (GIS), Analytics and Data Management.       

Photo of Capacity Building Training

Photo of Capacity Building Training

Step 2: 60- day Transition Phase

Following the successful conclusion of the capacity building workshop, the EOC technical support team (formerly the T/A coordinators) are undergoing a transition window during which they are expected to utilise the skills they had gained in their day to day activities at the EOCs. Some of these skills include:

This phase is intended to assess the abilities of the EOC technical support teams will be to use these skills; as well as to identify and address areas of growth or gaps in knowledge.    

Eventually, the EOC technical support teams will be able to act as frontline representatives of eHealth Africa to the states and partners who utilize the EOCs where they are domiciled. They will be able to add more value to eHA as well by identifying more opportunities for business development.

 

Behold the new faces of the EOCs!

Behold the new faces of the EOCs!