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Kicking polio out of Africa

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Democratic Republic of Congo: Immunization Day, August 2000

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a country devastated by armed conflict, there’s at least one battle that brings hope. In mid-August of 2000 the divided and desperately poor country pulled together in an attempt to immunize its children against polio. The immunization effort is vital to both the country and the world: DRC is one of the last major reservoirs for the wild poliovirus, which attacks infants and leaves them crippled for life.

The health system has all but collapsed in DRC, where a war between government troops and rebels has brought misery to the lives of millions.  While many have died from violence, many more have died from disease. Children are some of the worst hit – unable to get routine immunizations, their fragile bodies are exposed to all kinds of preventable disease.

National Immunization Days (NIDs) in DRC took place despite the ongoing war being waged on several fronts by government troops, an assortment of rebel groups, militias and soldiers from at least six neighbouring countries. Recognizing the pressing need to protect children on both sides of the front lines, the government and rebels have worked to ensure that vaccinators scour the country to immunize all children under age five.

It’s an impressive – and daunting – process involving 11 million children and 250,000 volunteers. Not only must the vaccinators find the children, they must find them while the vaccine is still cold and effective. To ensure this, the organizers create so-called cold chains. A cold chain is a series of relay points that have freezers and cold boxes to keep the vaccines cold and so maintain their potency. Vaccines are shipped directly from producers to a central storage facility in DRC’s capital, Kinshasa.

Once in a cold box, the vaccine can stay cold for about five days. Because of the remoteness of some DR Congolese villages and the lack of good roads, some volunteers need most of that time just to get to their destinations. They use any method of transportation possible: motorcycle, canoe and, most often, feet. Rebels control much of the country and it’s too dangerous to bring the vaccine across the frontlines. Thus, another batch of the vaccine is flown directly to the eastern city Goma, which is on the border with Rwanda. Yet, despite all of these many difficulties, DRC ultimately pulled off a logistical miracle - immunizing nearly 10 million children under the age five.

The last case of polio in DRC was reported in December, 2000