LUANDA, Angola, 28 January 2011 – Luanda is a study in contrasts, with a busy port reflecting Angola’s status as one of Africa’s largest oil producers on the one hand and overcrowded shantytowns on the other. Many of those who live in the capital’s poorest areas lack access to safe water and sanitation, and live with the constant threat of disease.
VIDEO: 26 January 2011 - UNICEF correspondent Guy Hubbard reports on Executive Director Anthony Lake's visit to Angola as part of a joint delegation reinforcing the international commitment to polio eradication there and around the world.
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After almost eradicating polio, Angola is once again struggling to end this crippling but easily preventable illness. In 2005, following three years with no new cases, polio was re-imported into the country. It has subsequently spread to neighbouring nations, including Namibia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of Congo.
As a result, Angola now is at the forefront of global efforts to eradicate the disease.
UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake visited Angola this week to help strengthen the political and financial commitment to the final push for polio eradication. He was part of a joint delegation with Dr. Tachi Yamada, President of the Global Health Programme at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, Africa Assistant Regional Director at the World Health Organization (WHO).
Virus knows no borders
An early-morning visit by the delegation to the Nzongo family home in Cacuaco, one of Luanda's poor urban communities, illustrated the human cost of polio.
In Cacuaco municipality on the outskirts of Luanda, UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake talks to children during a joint delegation visit boosting support for Angola in its battle to eradicate polio.
Eighteen-month-old Georgina Luisa, one of the family’s twin girls, had fallen ill with the polio virus and was now partially paralyzed. Her father, a teacher, told the visitors he was worried about her future and how she will cope in a densely populated city that provides little support for people with disabilities.
“Every human tragedy here in Angola is a threat to the whole world,” said Mr. Lake, referring to the fact that the polio virus knows no borders. “We came here in order to focus attention on what is happening in this community and other communities like it,” he added.
Improving the health system
At the Vila da Paz health centre in Luanda, another site visited by the delegation, four health workers treat 80 to 90 people daily, serving a population of around 40,000. Immunization services at such centres are free, but the country faces a shortage of skilled health workers.
Mr. Lake, Dr. Yamada and Dr. Moeti examined ‘cold-chain’ equipment used for preserving vaccines at the centre and spoke to mothers and children waiting to have their children vaccinated.
“The primary problem is not getting vaccines here. We are doing that,” Mr. Lake explained, adding the challenge “is to train more and more workers and to improve the system, so the vaccines can get to the people in an efficient way.”
A child receives oral polio vaccine at a clinic in Angola, where the disease re-emerged in 2005 after three years without any reported cases.
It is a view shared by WHO, which wants to see more technical experts at the sub-national level and a larger central team coordinating polio-immunization efforts.
“One of the biggest challenges the country faces is in human resources,” said Dr. Moeti. “It is clear that at the clinic level, there are great needs. Only a few health workers are responsible for serving many people, and with many logistical challenges.”
Critical to the success of immunization campaigns in Angola are volunteer community health workers who go door to door, checking on each family’s health and serving as vaccinators. “If we cannot stop polio here, we cannot stop it anywhere in the world. We are all behind you in your work,” Mr. Lake told 40 community health workers who had gathered at the Vila da Paz clinic.
At a meeting with President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos, the joint delegation argued for increased investment in human capital and accountability, especially at the provincial and district levels. The President responded with a strong expression of commitment to the country’s 2011 vaccination campaign, which is scheduled to start during the first quarter of the year.
A roundtable, held later that day, brought together private-sector and bilateral donors. Angolan Minister of Health Dr. Jose Vieria Dias Van-Dunem presented the country’s national plan for increasing immunization coverage and containing polio, and donors pledged to contribute to funding a gap of $24.5 million in the $70 million annual immunization budget.
UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake (left, in blue shirt) and Dr. Tachi Yamada, President of the Global Health Programme at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (right), interact with children at the Vila da Paz health post on the outskirts of Luanda, Angola's capital.
“Much money has been spent on this problem, but more is needed,” said Dr. Yamada. “It will require human and financial resources.” In the last decade, the Gates Foundation has invested $1 billion in the global polio-eradication campaign, its top priority – including $450 million last year alone.
Sense of momentum
Another gathering held during the delegation’s visit – a meeting of the National Council for Children – brought together national and provincial government officials and representatives of civil society organizations. It aimed to bring home to participants that all of their efforts are part of the global campaign to rid the world of what Mr. Lake described as an “evil disease.”
Partners at the meeting agreed to support the government in strengthening surveillance systems that will improve the country’s ability to respond to new outbreaks, as well as training more health workers and increasing routine immunization.
The joint delegation’s mission ended with a sense of momentum and urgency behind the effort to dramatically increase the coverage and quality of polio immunization here – not just for the children of Angola, but for children around the world.