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UNICEF responds as polio outbreak in Namibia claims more victims

© UNICEF Namibia/2002
A child is immunized during a 2002 polio eradication campaign in Namibia, where cases of polio have occurred despite the country’s functioning routine immunization and polio surveillance programmes.

By Sabine Dolan

NEW YORK, USA, 7 June 2006 – After a 10-year absence, Namibia has witnessed a sudden reappearance of polio, with 34 suspected cases and 7 deaths recorded so far. The recent outbreak of wild poliovirus has been confirmed in 5 of the country’s 13 regions, but most cases have occurred in and around the capital, Windhoek.

Three of the 34 suspect cases of sudden paralysis are under investigation; 3 have been positively identified as polio. The majority of these cases involve people over 20 years of age, which is highly unusual. The poliovirus is more likely to cause paralysis in adults than in children, and also leads more often to death in older people.

Data gathered so far suggest that the adults affected by the Namibia outbreak had not been immunized, or were under-immunized, against polio. Since the disease mostly affects young children, vaccination campaigns typically target the population under the age of five rather than a country’s entire population.
Reaching the target population

The outbreak has been expanding at a worrying rate. “The fear is that it is spreading so quickly,” said UNICEF’s Representative in Namibia, Khin-Sandi Lwin.

© UNICEF/HQ95-1126/Pirozzi
A young woman registers a baby for a consultation at a regional hospital in the town of Opuwo, northern Namibia. UNICEF provides the hospital with vaccines – including polio vaccine – and other medical supplies.

“Going from 1 case to 34 cases within a two-week period, it’s quite alarming,” she continued. “Because it’s a population-wide issue, the whole population of the country needs to be immunized. It’s a small population in a very vast country, so we have to go out to every small community that’s spread out throughout the country.”

UNICEF is working with Namibia’s national health authorities to plan an immediate response.

“Right now we’re raising the procurement for about 5 million polio vaccines, and that will be for two rounds of polio immunization” said Ms. Lwin. “We’re helping the government gear up for door-to-door vaccination along with outreach to the far, far corners of the country, as well as fixed-site vaccinations in the cities and towns.”

Some 1,500 teams of vaccinators and 1,800 vehicles will be required to carry out this massive exercise. 

Experience in outbreak response has shown that quick and repeated vaccination campaigns reaching the target population are highly effective. With such intervention, most outbreaks are stopped within 6 to 12 months.

Three immunization rounds

The origin of the outbreak in Namibia has not yet been determined. But according to the World Health Organization (WHO), the virus may have come from neighbouring Angola, which reported its most recent case of polio in November 2005. As long as the virus circulates anywhere, all countries face a risk of importation.

Namibia has a functioning routine immunization programme and meets international standards of surveillance for acute flaccid paralysis, a sign of polio.

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative – spearheaded by WHO, Rotary International, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and UNICEF – has reduced the worldwide incidence of the disease by 99 per cent since 1988. Presently, however, the initiative faces a funding gap of $85 million for this year and a further $400 million for 2007 and 2008.




7 June 2006: UNICEF Representative in Namibia Khin-Sandi Lwin talks about the country’s recent polio outbreak.
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Related links

UNICEF’s work in Namibia

Immunization plus: Eradicating polio

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