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Angola, 9 November 2010: Country battles polio outbreak with massive immunization drive

© UNICEF Angola/2010/Marinovich
Georgina Luisa de Deus Nzongo, aged one year and three months, was recently diagnosed with polio in Angola.

By Leonie Marinovich

LUANDA, Angola, 9 November 2010 – Little Georgina Luisa de Deus Nzongo smiles, pats her father’s cheek and chuckles like any other baby her age. But Georgina will not be able to run, ride a bike or engage in many other physical activities that her twin sister will enjoy as they grow up. Her legs are paralyzed for life.

VIDEO: UNICEF's Leonie Marinovich reports on the polio immunization campaign in Angola. Watch in RealPlayer

“On June 19, just a day before her first birthday, Georgina had a high fever and we took her to a hospital to get medical attention,” recalls her father, Gabriel Zonga. “The girls had just begun to crawl and we did not know what was happening. We were astonished to find out that our baby girl had been infected by polio.”

Georgina’s is one of 25 polio cases reported in Angola this year – cases that could have been easily avoided since the disease is vaccine-preventable.

Emergency plan

Better environmental sanitation and good hygiene practices can go a long way in reducing the incidence of new polio infections. But to effectively eradicate this highly infectious disease, reaching every last child through routine and supplementary immunization is crucial.

© UNICEF Angola/2010/Marinovich
Health workers in Angola train for a massive door-to-door immunization campaign for every child under the age of five in areas considered to be at risk of polio.

Angola’s Government is investing in both and has a dedicated emergency plan to stop polio transmission by the end of 2010. This effort is part of a broader polio immunization campaign aiming to reaching 72 million children in 15 African countries.

At a municipal health centre in Luanda’s northern municipality of Cacuaco, Victoria Martinho has brought her four-month-old baby for vaccination. She joins a long line of mothers waiting to be seen and having their babies immunized.

According to Dr. Antonio Sebastiao Pascoal, the uptake of services in this health centre are good. If this was the standard across the country, Angola’s children would be much better off. “Sometimes mothers are a bit careless about routine vaccination,” he says. “And some live in very remote areas, so it is difficult for health personnel to reach them. But we have to reach every child, or we will not get rid of polio.”

Stepped-up efforts

Polio was on the brink of eradication in Angola at the end of 2004, when the country had experienced three consecutive years without new cases. Then, in 2005, the wild poliovirus reappeared here. Angola now has one of the biggest polio caseloads in Africa.

With help from UNICEF, the World Health Organization, USAID, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rotary International, civil society and other development partners, the government is stepping up efforts to stop polio transmission. Four national immunization campaigns have been held this year, assisted by UNICEF with vaccine procurement and social-mobilization support.

“While stopping the transmission of polio by the end of this year is on track,” says UNICEF Representative in Angola Dr. Koen Vanormelingen, “more effort and funding is still required.” Dr. Vanormelingen adds that the results achieved so far are “thanks to the political commitment and engagement of all partners.”

However, polio immunization is only the tip of the iceberg in Angola. Lack of access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene will prove to be some of the biggest hurdles to overcome in this attempt to eradicate the disease.

The polio vaccination campaign in Angola follows a recent outbreak of the highly infectious, paralyzing and sometimes fatal disease, which is especially dangerous for young children.

 

 
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