|A girl infected with polio learns to walk again at a UNICEF-sponsored support centre in Niamey, Niger.|
NEW YORK, 24 February 2005 – As part of a massive polio immunization drive across Africa, more than a million health workers will be travelling, by land, sea and air, house to house through 22 countries, to vaccinate roughly 100 million children. Warring factions in Sudan and Côte d’Ivoire, which are currently affected by ongoing civil conflicts, have guaranteed the safety of vaccinators as they travel deep into conflict zones to reach children in remote communities.
Supported by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, a unique public-private partnership dedicated to a polio-free world, the massive campaign is part of the effort to stop the spread of polio by the end of this year and eradicate the virus completely by 2008. For many of the families which the vaccination teams will encounter, this will be their first contact with any international aid programme.
Since the launch of the Polio Eradication Initiative in 1988, the number of polio cases around the world has been slashed by 99 per cent, from 350,000 per year to just over 1,000 in 2004. Around 85 per cent of last year’s cases were in Africa, where an epidemic is reinfecting people in countries which had been free of the virus for some years.
There is huge support for the initiative among community and religious leaders, as well as families across the continent. When the campaign was suspended in Côte d’Ivoire in November 2004 due to the civil conflict, villagers donated their own fuel to fire generators to preserve the vaccines. There are major concerns that un-immunized refugees from Côte d’Ivoire, forced to flee from the violence there to camps in neighbouring Liberia, will take the virus with them; Liberia is currently free from polio.
Speaking in New York, UNICEF’s Chief of Health Pascal Villeneuve, said: “This year is going to be critical. Even though we are making progress, the fact remains that last year, apart from three endemic countries remaining endemic, 12 countries have been reinfected and of those countries, we’ve seen a re-establishment of the transmission of polio in five nations. It’s absolutely crucial that this campaign is successful.”
|© UNICEF Nigeria/HQ04-0731/YAHAYA|
|A child, held by his mother, receives a dose of oral polio vaccine as others look on, in Kwachiri, Nigeria.|
Polio immunization ground to a halt in northern Nigeria between autumn 2003 and July 2004 because of rumours about the safety of the vaccine. As a result, the number of young polio victims in the country more than doubled from during this time. This setback had grave consequences for Nigeria’s neighbours: eight cases of Nigerian polio were imported into Benin, which had been polio-free since 2000.
President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, who is also the President of the African Union, and his counterpart President Mathieu Kérékou of Benin met on 20 February to signal their support for the synchronized campaign, which kicks off in earnest on 25 February. The slogan for the day was: “Launch a final assault on polio!”
The ‘Children’s Parliaments’ of both Nigeria and Benin were represented at the meeting. Remarks delivered by children emphasized the importance of the campaign for them: “Today is a special day for Benin and Nigeria. All children under five years old, every one of our brothers and sisters, must be vaccinated. We represent the present and the future. Everyone must support the cause, working hand in hand to eradicate this disease.”
The ceremony closed as each President, in a show of solidarity, donned the traditional vaccinator’s uniform of the neighbouring country – a white cap in Benin and a green bib in Nigeria. As mothers brought their children forward with pride, each child received two drops of polio vaccine from the hands of their national leader.
There is still a $75 million shortfall in needed funding for critical immunization campaigns planned for 2005. A total of $200 million will be needed next year to help reach the goal of eradicating the virus worldwide by 2008.
23 February 2005: UNICEF’s Rachel Bonham Carter reports on the drive to end polio.