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Congo, Democratic Republic of the

UNICEF supports interventions to break the polio cycle in DR Congo

© UNICEF DR Congo/2011
Izika's 2-year-old son contracted polio in Popokabaka, DR Congo. She is determined that her other son receive all his vaccinations.

KINSHASHA, Democratic Republic of Congo, 20 December 2011 – “Who cultivates ignorance will harvest disease!” These were the closing words of a sketch performed in Popokabaka, part of a recent polio drive launched in response to the country’s rash of polio cases this year. 

After being polio-free for five years, the country was re-infected in 2006, and  a vicious cycle has since perpetuated itself. Eighty-eight cases have been reported this year.

Together with Pakistan and Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has had the highest count of polio cases in recent years.

‘This experience is cruel’

“We don’t see a solution for him,” said Izika, the 18-year-old mother of two boys. Her eldest, 2-year-old Mabatu, fell sick with polio in July, a situation that overstretched the family’s ability to cope.

“Neither my husband nor myself are at home during the day. He is working in the diamond mines on the other side of the border in Angola, and I am growing manioc in the forest,” Izika said.

Since Mabatu was infected with the polio virus, he has been unable to move his arms and legs. Izika has vowed to protect her other son. “This experience is cruel,” she said. “His brother will not miss a polio campaign ever again.”

© UNICEF DR Congo/2011
A woman receives a mark on her fingernail to show that she has been vaccinated against polio, in Popokabaka, DR Congo.

Working together against a borderless disease

Still, routine immunization coverage is insufficient. This, along with poor hygiene practices and frequent movement between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and neighboring Angola are major reasons for the polio’s recent surge here.

Popokabaka and the neighbouring Angolan province of Uige have many similarities, including insufficient road and sanitation infrastructure, poor immunization coverage, and large distance between households and health centres, all factors contributing to polio’s persistence. The two provinces are separated by the Kwango River, but they are united in their efforts to protect their children from the paralyzing virus.

“Regardless of borders, all children have the same right to grow up healthy. Our responsibility is to support stake holders in their efforts to make this right a reality,” said UNICEF Representative in the country Barbara Bentein.

According to the country’s Multi Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS IV), only 42 per cent of Congolese children 12 to 23 months old are fully immunized against all major childhood diseases. Though progress has been made over the past ten years, but many have been left behind. While 58 per cent of children in the top quintile are fully vaccinated, only 38 per cent of children in the bottom quintile are.

A similar scenario exists on the other side of the border: Only 57 per cent of Angolans have access to improved sanitation, and only half benefit from improved water sources. Angola registered 33 polio cases in 2010, and five in 2011.

“Polio is borderless and our intervention must be as well,” said UNICEF Representative in Angola Koenraad Vanormelingen. “As we enter the rainy season, we will continue to support coordination between our countries to reach every single child with the vaccine, on both sides of the border.”



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