April 2 (UPI) -- The Global Polio Eradication Initiative has said it is pausing all immunization campaigns for the next six months to prevent further spread of COVID-19 and make available resources to fight the pandemic.
"The COVID-19 pandemic response requires worldwide solidarity and an urgent global effort," the global organization working to eradicate the life-threatening poliovirus said in a statement on Thursday. "The Global Polio Eradication Initiative stands ready to respond."
The GPEI said all countries have been advised to postpone poliovirus preventative drives until the second half of 2020 with those that had already planned to conduct campaigns to postpone them until June and then re-evaluate whether to proceed based on the status of the pandemic, which has grown since December when it began to more than 1 million infections and more than 53,000 deaths worldwide, according to a live tracker of COVID-19 by Johns Hopkins University.
"We take this decision with deep regret, knowing more children may be paralyzed by polio as a result," GPEI said. "Nonetheless, GPEI believes it is the correct decision, given the imperative to save lives in the current emergency and not contribute to the further spread of COVID-19."
The organization described its announcement as a "call to action," stating its programmatic and operational assets and human resources will be made available "to enable a strong response to COVID-19."
The announcement came more than a week after the Polio Oversight Board decided for "all polio activities, which come in contradiction to global guidance on physical distancing, such as house-to-house or other immunization activities using oral or injectable vaccines, should be suspended to avoid placing communities and frontline workers at unnecessary risk and facilitate rapid and effective COVID-19 response in countries."
The GPEI said the final decision on suspending polio activities will be up to the individual countries, warning those that decide to proceed risk further spread of COVID-19. It said countries that will continue with their drives are to have protocols in place to protect health workers and the public.
It said as soon as the situation allows, it will scale-up its response to fight polio as the postponement of vaccination campaigns "will lead to lengthened eradication timelines and increased resource needs."
The GPEI was launched in 1988 and has been apart of the global effort to eradicate polio. Since then, the incidence of polio has decreased by 99.9 percent, the organization said on its website.