DAKAR/ NEW YORK / GENEVA, 23 February 2004 - One month after an emergency meeting of Health Ministers committed to end polio transmission in 2004, Africa is responding with a massive, synchronized polio immunization campaign, aiming to vaccinate 63 million children over the next few days.
From 23 February, 10 countries will hold simultaneous polio immunization campaigns, targeting 63 million children in Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon (20 February), Central African Republic, Chad (joining in March), Ghana, Niger, Nigeria and Togo. Political, religious and traditional leaders will team up to launch the activities, and tens of thousands of vaccinators will go house-to-house to administer the vaccine directly to every child over the following three days.
In recent months, polio has again spread across west and central Africa, paralyzing children in seven previously polio-free countries – most recently the Central African Republic – and putting millions more at risk. But partners in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative say that if upcoming campaigns over the next several months reach every child, polio in Africa could be stopped in its tracks in 2004.
“After eight years of incredible collaboration and investment, Africa is standing on the verge of a well-deserved triumph in public health,” said Dr Ebrahim Samba, WHO Regional Director for the African Region. “But the disease is now threatening to make a comeback, and the whole continent is on the brink of re-infection unless these campaigns stop the further spread of the virus. Africa has proved it can stop polio – now is the time to finish the job.”
Progress in polio eradication has been one of Africa’s greatest achievements in public health. The campaign to “Kick Polio Out of Africa”, launched in 1996 by Nelson Mandela and other African leaders, and now championed by Professor Alpha Omar Konaré, Chairperson of the Commission of The African Union, has cut polio cases down from 205 children being paralyzed every day to 388 during the entire year in 2003. Polio immunization has brought “Days of Tranquillity” to countries torn apart by conflict, turning civil war into ceasefire and combatants into bodyguards to allow vaccinators to reach children in safety.
“Africa’s challenges are matched only by its potential,” said Rima Salah, UNICEF’s Regional Director for West and Central Africa. “Before this new wave of cases, Africa had made the most rapid progress of any continent to secure a polio-free future for its children. It would be an unspeakable tragedy to allow the virus to slip back in now. National and community leaders must take a stand to stop the spread of this disease and ensure a victory over polio for the entire continent.”
Nigeria’s suspension of immunization campaigns in key northern states, and in particular Kano, remains the greatest challenge — and the greatest opportunity — for a quick end to polio in Africa. Until mid-2003, Nigeria was part of Africa’s polio success story, with only a few northern states still endemic with the virus and Lagos, Africa’s most densely populated city, polio-free for over two years. The suspension of immunization campaigns in Kano and the subsequent outbreak of polio in that area was fuelled by unfounded rumours about the safety of polio vaccine. This is in stark contrast to the substantial support polio eradication has received from scientific and religious bodies, and multilateral institutions around the world. In October 2003, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) unanimously resolved to eradicate polio by the end of 2004. Further to this commitment the United Arab Emirates (UAE) recently announced the first pledge of what will be a multi-million dollar contribution by Islamic Gulf countries.
The contribution from the UAE comes at a critical time for the campaign, as the spread of the virus in West Africa continues to drain the Global Polio Eradication Initiative of its already limited resources. The partnership is short US$ 130 million, funds urgently needed for activities through 2005, an amount that increases as more countries become infected.
With global eradication in sight and as west and central Africa embarks on its most critical immunization campaigns ever, Jonathan Majiyagbe, President of Rotary International, appealed directly to communities to immunize their children.
“The Secretary General of the United Nations called polio eradication ‘a shining model of how we can come together against a common enemy of mankind’,” Majiyagbe said. “Polio is our common enemy, but in some African communities, fear and misinformation about the polio vaccine has become as deadly as any disease. The polio vaccine is a safe and essential protection for children. We must not allow unfounded rumours to come between our children and their health.”
The Global Polio Eradication Initiative is spearheaded by WHO, Rotary International, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and UNICEF. The poliovirus is now circulating in only six countries, down from over 125 when the Global Polio Eradication Initiative was launched in 1988. The six countries with indigenous wild poliovirus are: Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Niger, Afghanistan and Egypt.
The polio eradication coalition includes governments of countries affected by polio; private foundations (e.g. United Nations Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation); development banks (e.g. the World Bank); donor governments (e.g. Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, the Russian Federation , the United Kingdom and the United States of America); the European Commission; humanitarian and nongovernmental organizations (e.g. the International Red Cross and Red Crescent societies) and corporate partners (e.g. Aventis Pasteur, De Beers). Volunteers in developing countries also play a key role; 20 million have participated in mass immunization campaigns.