NEW YORK, 22 June 2004 - Today’s confirmation of a polio case in Darfur is the latest blow to hit children in a region beset by tragedy. This news is both a setback to Africa’s eradication campaign and a serious threat to public health.
Having just recently returned from Darfur and witnessed the vulnerability of children there, I find it unthinkable that families have fled violence and terror only to find their children at risk once again – this time from a virus Sudan eradicated three years ago.
Long distance importations of polio - into Botswana two months ago, and now into Darfur - are clear signs that the eradication effort in Africa is facing significant challenges. Too many children across the region are defenceless against this disease because they haven’t been adequately immunized.
After reaching the threshold of an extraordinary achievement in public health, we now find ourselves on the verge of a public health crisis – a looming polio epidemic across large parts of Africa.
Such an epidemic would be a terrible erosion of the progress made against polio on behalf of the region’s children. Africa had reduced the incidence of polio from 75,000 cases annually in 1996 to just 384 cases last year. Now hundreds, if not thousands of children are again at risk of being paralysed by a disease that Africa had almost beaten, a disease for which we have a safe, effective vaccine.
African children have the right to protection against polio – and that means taking action now.
Today, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative announced that 22 countries will be taking part in synchronized immunization activities during October and November. These synchronized campaigns could help avert a humanitarian crisis – and UNICEF is doing everything in our power to ensure they are effective, hand-in-hand with our partners WHO, Rotary International and the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Right now we are mobilizing resources and staff in west and central Africa, to support governments and communities to implement the immunization activities. We will supply African nations with oral polio vaccine for the coming campaigns, and get the vaccine where it needs to go. We will work with communities to build grassroots confidence and participation in the immunization campaigns from the grass-roots level. The controversy around the use of polio vaccine in Nigeria has alarmed a lot of families in the region. We have to make sure they know that the vaccine is safe.
I cannot over-emphasise how critical it is that Kano State to resume immunization activities immediately. Until children in Kano are protected against polio, every child is at risk.
We know Africa can beat polio. Many of these countries have stopped polio transmission before. They can do it again.
I am also appealing for the international community to increase their support at this critical juncture. Donor governments and private citizens have given generously of their money and time to finish with polio. Now their generosity will prove more vital than ever. African governments need resources as well as public and political support to stop the spread of polio. It is in our global interest to help in this effort, so that all children can grow up in a polio-free world.
For further information, please contact:
Claire Hajaj, UNICEF/New York, +1 212 326 7566