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Congo, Democratic Republic of the

UNICEF and partners respond to re-emergence of polio in DR Congo

Immunization rounds aim to reach 11 million children in high-risk areas

By Cornelia Walther

KANANGA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 8 November 2010 – Kasai Occidental Province is the epicentre of a recent polio outbreak in the DR Congo, and the provincial capital Kananga is where a three-day immunization drive began at the end of October. Its aim: to reach more than 11 million children in 9 of the country’s 11 provinces.

VIDEO: 28 October 2010 - UNICEF's Jonah Fisher reports on UNICEF's efforts to stop the re-emergence of polio in DR Congo.  Watch in RealPlayer


“Humanity has a responsibility to stop the wild poliovirus from circulating,” said Interior Minister Serge Bokele, who is also the acting Governor of Kasai.

DR Congo is joining a massive immunization campaign by 15 African countries to protect 72 million children from the paralyzing and sometimes fatal disease. A total of 290,000 vaccinators and social mobilizers – including over 71,000 in DR Congo – are going door-to-door with two drops of oral polio vaccine for every child under five years of age living in an area with a high risk of polio transmission.

Virus crosses border

Some 30 cases of polio have been reported in DR Congo this year. Polio-free for several years, the country registered a re-emergence of the virus in 2006, with 13 cases, followed by a peak of 41 cases in 2007, 5 cases in 2008 and 3 cases in 2009.

© UNICEF DRCongo/2010/Walther
A mother watches as her child receives a polio vaccine in DR Congo. After almost being eradicated, polio has re-emerged in the country.

“I am happy to know that my children will be protected from this horrible disease. Swallowing a couple of drops seems so simple, it feels like magic,” said Emmanuelle Nsilulu, a mother who has just given birth to her third child. All three of her boys have been vaccinated.

Earlier this year, after an outbreak of 25 polio cases in neighbouring Angola, the virus spilled over the border into neighboring provinces of DR Congo. Combined, these two countries have recorded the great majority of Africa's cases in 2010.

“Action by all partners, pulling the rope in one direction, can achieve the goal of a polio-free DRC by 31 December,” said Minister of Public Health Victor Makwenge Kaput.

‘Long-lasting results’

The recent round of polio immunization will be followed by a second round in mid-November. “To achieve long-lasting results, high-quality immunization campaigns must be complemented by enhanced routine immunization and strong disease surveillance,” said the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) in DR Congo, Dr. Matthieu Kamwe.”

© UNICEF DRCongo/2010/Walther
UNICEF and its partners are supporting a massive polio vaccination campaign in DR Congo and other African countries. Once a child has received the oral polio vaccine, her finger is marked to prevent duplication by subsequent immunization teams.

Among the major reasons for the re-emergence of polio in Kasai Occidental is a lack of full immunization coverage in remote, poor areas – and in particular, within poor families. While 80 per cent of children from well-off families are fully vaccinated, only 20 per cent are protected in disadvantaged households, according to this year’s national Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey.

The two polio immunization rounds here in October and November will have cost a total of approximately $8.2 million, funded by UNICEF, WHO, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, USAID, Rotary International and the Governments of Germany and Japan.

“All children have the same right to be protected from polio,” said UNICEF Representative in DR Congo Pierrette Vu Thi. “Our responsibility [is] to translate this right into reality. To ignore this liability today will be expensive tomorrow, in terms of human lives and resources.”



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