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UNICEF aims to immunize 85 million children against polio in West and Central Africa

© UNICEF video
A small child receives the polio vaccine as part of a massive campaign to eradicate the disease in West and Central Africa.

By Shantha Bloemen

NEW YORK, USA, 5 March 2010 – For children in West and Central Africa, the threat of the crippling disease polio, eradicated in much of the world, still looms.

In Nigeria, the virulent polio virus is still endemic. In 2008, it spread from the north of the country to other nations in the region.

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Many of these countries were on the way to being declared polio-free and had successfully eradicated the virus. Yet with the movement of people across borders, and the inadequate level of routine immunization in many areas, the virus has quickly spread. Now, many of these areas are reinfected, threatening more children with paralysis and even death.

© UNICEF video
Health workers take the vaccine to homes as part of the campaign to eradicate polio.

A first wave of immunization in reinfected countries has made progress against the virus. In the past six months, however, outbreaks have remained active in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Senegal and Sierra Leone.

Campaign includes 19 countries

In an effort to curtail the spread and work towards the global eradication of polio, a massive vaccination campaign is about to take place in West and Central Africa. In an extraordinary display of solidarity and coordination, a set of synchronized cross-border vaccination campaigns will be conducted in 19 countries in the region.

The campaign is being spearheaded by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, a network of partners including national governments, the World Health Organization, Rotary International, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, UNICEF and the International Federation of the Red Cross.

The aim is to reach every child under the age of five. Without a critical mass of children being immunized, the virus will not be stopped. The plan is ambitious; more than 400,000 volunteers and health workers aim to immunize 85 million children. The first round, which will take place from 6-9 March, will be followed by a second round on 24-27 April.

© UNICEF Video
UNICEF aims to vaccinate 85 million children in West and Central Africa against polio.

Challenging terrain

In a massive logistical exercise, vaccination teams will cross some of the toughest and most challenging terrain in Africa to ensure that children are reached. The teams, equipped with special carriers that ensure the vaccine remains below the required 8 degrees Celsius, will go door-to-door in search of every child under five.

Learning from a similar campaign that took place last year, experienced health workers are being deployed to locations that have proven to be the most challenging. A special plan has been put in place to focus on the border areas between countries, and an independent monitoring system has been developed to track progress.

To make sure parents are informed and understand the importance of having their children vaccinated, a massive information campaign is under way. Partners – including heads of government, local district officials, religious leaders and pop stars – are spreading the word. Good news, too, is a new vaccine that can target both of the remaining wild polio serotypes. It will be introduced in Benin and Nigeria in the first round, then in all countries in the second. This not only makes the logistics simpler but increases the chances that children will be fully protected.

For West and Central Africa's children, life is already filled with many challenges. Eradicating polio and preventing a life of disability, exclusion and physical hardship will be one less threat to their survival, welfare and development. With better coverage that leaves no child unvaccinated, these campaigns can succeed in making West and Central Africa polio-free.




3 March 2010: UNICEF correspondent Shantha Bloemen reports on the polio immunization campaign in West and Central Africa.
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