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African immunization campaign strikes back against global polio epidemic

© UNICEF/HQ04-0733/Yahaya
Members of a mobile immunization team in Kano, Nigeria. Mobile teams go door-to-door to vaccinate children.

By Kun Li

NEW YORK, 13 May 2005 – Striking at the heart of a global polio epidemic, a door-to-door immunization campaign kicks off on 14 May, aiming to reach the most vulnerable children in the poorest communities across Africa.

This will be the third in a series of mass immunization drives this year, seeking to protect at least 77 million children under five in at least 10 African countries where the paralysing disease is still a threat.

“The most important element to successfully eradicating polio is to ensure all children under age five are vaccinated,” said UNICEF Senior Technical Advisor on Polio Eradication Dennis King. “In much of Africa and South Asia, stopping the virus where it circulates means reaching the poorest children.”

© UNICEF/HQ04-0731/Yahaya
A child receives a dose of oral polio vaccine during a previous polio immunization campaign held in northern Kano State, Nigeria.

Africa’s first two polio campaigns, in February and March of this year, aimed to reach around 100 million children in 23 African nations – the largest coordinated public health events in history. As a result, the number of polio cases – especially in Nigeria – has been drastically reduced. But the virus remains an ever-present threat to all unimmunized children.

Polio has been spreading since 2003, when an epidemic emerged in West Africa. The advance of the disease across the continent was fuelled by low immunity rates. So far, there have been renewed outbreaks in 16 formerly polio-free countries. Polio has now crossed the Red Sea into Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and has reached as far away as Indonesia, which had been polio-free for a decade.

“In late 2002 and early 2003, all African nations with exception of Nigeria and Niger were polio-free. African nations have had great success and sound positive experience in stopping polio virus transmission. So the series of National Immunization Days this year is an attempt to return these countries into polio-free status,” explained Mr. King.

© UNICEF/HQ04-0732/Yahaya
A health worker paints a sleeping Nigerian child's thumbnail, to indicate that she has been immunized.

UNICEF and its partners in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative are determined to reach each and every child with the vital vaccine. During these campaigns, vaccinators in many places will be administering vitamin A drops along with the polio vaccine – an immunity-boosting strategy that has saved an estimated 1.2 million lives over 12 years.

Further mass polio vaccination campaigns in Africa are scheduled throughout the year. A progress review is scheduled for August, once all the data for these campaigns has been collected.

But funds are running short.  A total of $50 million is needed by July to finance the eradication effort for the rest of the year. Some $200 million will be required in 2006 to safeguard the gains of this year and ensure polio is gone forever.

Claire Hajaj contributed to this story.




13 May 2005:
UNICEF New York correspondent Kun Li reports on the immunization campaign which seeks to protect more than 77 million African children.

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