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Congo, Democratic Republic of the

Immunizing millions of children to eradicate polio in DR Congo

A health worker administers the oral polio vaccine to a girl in Mbandaka.

By Cornelia Walther

KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 25 October 2011 – The Government of the Democratic Republic of Congo, with support from UNICEF and partners, recently concluded a massive campaign seeking to immunize more than 14 million children under age five against polio.

It was an undertaking with enormous logistical challenges, including the country’s size (roughly that of Western Europe ), scant infrastructure, and a rainy season limiting access to remote areas.

Yet if the obstacles were enormous, so too was the ambition.

“Our goal is to eradicate polio,” said Minister of Public Health Victor Makwenge Kaput as he launched the campaign in Kinshasa. “To vaccinate one’s child is a gesture of love.”

Resurgent illness

After years of being polio-free, DR Congo was re-infected with the virus in 2006. The country is now one of the most polio-affected in the world, with 84 cases reported so far this year.

Experts blame gaps in routine immunization coverage for the re-emergence of the disease. Accounting for these gaps are the weak national health service and one of the world’s highest rates of vaccine refusal. Many families decline to immunize their children because of their religious beliefs or traditions; nationally, 13 per cent of children are missed by vaccination efforts, a number that rises to 32 per cent in certain provinces.

After children are immunized, their fingers are marked, allowing officials to keep track of who has been reached.

Still, rates of routine immunization have significantly improved over the past decade, and this latest campaign aims to close the gaps even more.

Nearing the goal

Between 20 and 22 October, thousands of vaccination teams travelled door-to-door, visiting schools, markets, health centres and homes.

“The vaccinators travel by foot, bicycle, motorbike, pirogue and car,” said Granga Daouya, head of UNICEF’s vaccination program in DR Congo. “No matter where the child lives, we must do our best to reach all boys and girls with the vaccine.”

Through the campaign, children received not only the polio vaccine, but also vitamin A supplements and deworming tablets. The majority of parents welcomed vaccinators with open arms.

“I am grateful that my children are vaccinated. This is at least one thing less to worry about,” said 35-year-old Aminata, a mother of five. She makes sure all her children are vaccinated whenever an immunization round takes place. 

Post-campaign assessment will show how many children were successfully reached by this latest effort. But thanks to the participation of Aminata and millions of others, polio eradication is once again a possibility.

“DRC is close to reaching the goal of polio eradication,” said Steven Lauwerier, UNICEF’s deputy representative in the country. “We have a shared responsibility to act and kick it out, now and forever.”



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