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Africa polio campaign at critical stage

© UNICEF/HQ05-0442/Heger
A child is vaccinated against polio in the village of Beles, Ethiopia. All boys and girls under 5 in Ethiopia are being vaccinated as part of the current polio immunization campaign.

By Rachel Bonham Carter

NEW YORK, 8 April 2005 – The critical second stage of the mass immunization campaign to stop the spread of polio across Africa is now underway.  A total of 23 countries are taking part in the drive to immunize 100 million children across the continent, as the epidemic continues.

Polio still grips Africa from coast-to-coast and the threat to children is now increasing as time goes on. Despite the current ‘low season’, transmission continues across western, central and eastern Africa. The current round of immunizations, together with the next series in May, constitutes the only opportunity to stop the virus before the high transmission season sets in (July-Sept).

Early reports suggest that the first immunization rounds in February reached a record number of children despite some significant gaps.  Children in some of the biggest epidemic flashpoints – Sudan and Côte d’Ivoire – received the vaccine for the first time in many months.  International cooperation on an unprecedented scale helped vaccinate children in remote or inaccessible areas, such as border territories, refugee camps and conflict zones.

© UNICEF/HQ04-0728/Yahaya
In northern Kano, Nigeria, two health workers from a mobile immunization team register children during the campaign against polio. Nigeria has already reported more than 30 cases of polio in 2005.

International partnership helps slash polio cases by 99 per cent

Supported by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, a unique public-private partnership dedicated to a polio-free world, the massive campaign is part of the effort to stop transmission of polio by the end of 2005. This would pave the way for the world to be certified polio-free by 2008. 

Since the launch of the Polio Eradication Initiative in 1988, the number of polio cases around the world has been slashed by 99 per cent, from 350,000 per year to just over 1,000 in 2004. Around 85 per cent of last year’s cases were in Africa.

The Horn of Africa is still under siege following the reinfection of Ethiopia. After four years free from polio, two cases were confirmed there in January.

Nigeria is already reporting numerous polio cases in early 2005, with 32 to date – the same rate of transmission as in 2004, when polio immunization was temporarily suspended in Kano.

Guinea and Mali have both reported cases recently, confirming fears that children are being missed by the campaign.  The virus has now re-established itself in Mali.

© UNICEF/HQ05-0443/Heger
In the village of Beles, Ethiopia, health workers vaccinate a child against polio. Ethiopia was reinfected in January after 4 years free from polio.

Strong leadership is crucial

These threats are being met with determination by African leaders.  The Ethiopian government and humanitarian agencies met in early March to plan a fast response to the reinfection.  Countries are continuing to coordinate their plans to protect vulnerable borders in Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire, Sudan and elsewhere.

In many countries the campaigns are also being used to deliver immunity-boosting vitamin A – an example of one of the broader benefits of the polio programme, which is a means of accessing millions of children who are otherwise very difficult to reach with health interventions.
Similar campaigns in 2000 and 2001 stopped polio in all but three countries, so it should be possible to stop the epidemic over the coming months. The biggest danger to the campaign is political complacency.  There are still too many children being missed.  Strong leadership is crucial, as are funds:  $75 million is still needed to fund activities through the end of the year.




8 April 2005:
UNICEF New York correspondent Rachel Bonham Carter reports on the 2nd stage of Africa’s mass immunization campaign to stop polio.

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February 2005:
UNICEF Representative in Liberia Angela Kearney explains how word of the immunization campaign reaches the people.

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