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Africa polio campaign 2004: How polio haunts Africa – and how Africans are fighting back

Image de l'UNICEF
© UNICEF 2004/Crowe
Polio cripples its victims for life

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A looming polio epidemic in Africa has precipitated the single-largest public health campaign in history - taking place now.  80 million children will be immunized against the crippling and potentially deadly effects of polio. Over one million vaccinators and volunteers are travelling door to door and village to village across 23 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa in hopes of preventing a public health tragedy and stopping polio forever.  Africa is fighting back hoping to end polio forever.

DAKAR, Senegal, 7 OCTOBER 2004 – Defeating polio takes more than money and vaccines. It needs understanding – from parents, government officials and community leaders – that having children immunized against this crippling disease is necessary, safe and good.

That’s why a group of community activists from the village of Theis, Senegal, are spreading their anti-polio message with robust singing and rhythmic dancing – even though they are on crutches as a result of polio.

The courageous activists are creating their own brand of social mobilization campaign, calling on people not to let their children end up in wheelchairs crippled by polio, handicapped as the activists themselves are.

“My advice to others is to immunize your children, because to be handicapped is very difficult,” said Amary Thiam, 37, who is leading the mobilization efforts.

Joining the chorus, from mosques and minarets to pulpits and presidential palaces, the word has gone out across 23 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Starting on 8 October 2004, 80 million children will be immunized against polio in the single largest public health campaign in history.

This mammoth effort to halt a looming polio epidemic in Africa has brought leaders together to synchronize their campaigns against the crippling disease.

The northern Nigerian state of Kano had become the epicentre of a resurgence of polio, after immunizations there were suspended for close to a year following unfounded rumours about the safety of the polio vaccine. This resulted in the polio virus spreading alarmingly beyond borders to Niger, Sudan (1000 miles east) and even as far as Botswana (3000 miles south).

Image de l'UNICEF
© UNICEF 2004/Crowe
Amary Thiam, 37 One of the handicapped in Theis, Senegal, spearheading their social mobilization campaign

The Botswana case – one of the first cases of long-distance importations of the disease, identified as a Nigerian strain of the virus – was a clear indication that polio indeed knows no borders.

”Polio anywhere is a threat to children everywhere,” said Rima Salah, UNICEF Regional Director in West and Central Africa.

In response to the threat, Botswana ran a hugely successful immunization campaign in mid-June, immunizing 250,000 children.

The resurgence of the polio virus in countries that were once polio-free triggered a mass mobilization campaign, involving political leaders, celebrities like Youssou N’dour, and international organization. UNICEF held a major awareness-building drive in September, with the participation of 150 Muslim leaders from West Africa. All of this helped convince those who were reluctant to support immunization.

Last Saturday, Nigeria’s President Olusegun Obasanjo, in a powerfully symbolic act, himself administered oral polio vaccine drops to a one-year-old girl.

“We used to think polio was behind us,” said Youssou N’dour in an interview last week. “But now we know that it is still very much with us and we must immunize our children. Campaigns out of Geneva or New York have good intentions, but in Africa we have to communicate this message very powerfully and involve all the leaders, musicians, artists, imams, traditional leaders everyone.”

The number of cases of polio had risen from 40 across nine countries last year to 200 new victims in the first half of this year. Most global polio cases are currently in Nigeria – 544 out of 717 cases. The polio virus is spread by unsanitary living conditions, bad water and contact with those who are already infected or contagious.

In immunization campaigns, two rounds of Oral Polio Vaccine need to be administered, one month apart. The first round of the campaign across West and Central Africa and in Sudan is from 8 - 12 October. The second round will take place in November.

The success of the initiative depends on meeting a critical funding shortfall of $200million through 2004-2005. A total of $35 million is needed by November.

A pan-African forum meeting will be held in Dakar, Senegal from 18-20 October, to give a final push to the last round in the immunization drive.




1 October 2004: How polio came back…and what its victims are doing to fight it
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1 October: Public service announcement – African community leaders urge participation in the polio campaign
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1 October: Sports star helps polio effort
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Polio facts

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