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UNICEF supports emergency polio immunization efforts in Congo

UNICEF Congo/2010/Asselin
© UNICEF Congo/2010/Asselin
Tony Boussana, 24, who has been paralyzed by polio is helped to sit by his girl friend, Sabena, 19, at the A. Cisse Hospital in Pointe-Noire, Congo.

Pointe Noire, Republic of Congo, 14 December 2010 - The Republic of Congo is currently undergoing a three-round emergency immunization campaign launched in the wake of an explosive and deadly polio outbreak.

Unusually, most of the victims have been young adults aged 15-29, pointing to inadequate or failing childhood vaccinations.

At the A. Cisse Hospital in Pointe Noire, Tony Boussana , 24, has been partly paralyzed by the disease. "When I got to the hospital I could still move my arms but now I can't. I feel completely lost," he says.

Race to stop polio
This week marks the end of the second wave of mass polio immunization with thousands of health agents and volunteers racing to vaccinate the Republic of Congo’s entire population, irrespective of their gender, age or past immunization status.

The number of new cases is slowing and the unusually high mortality rate has slowly decreased from 47 per cent at the onset of the outbreak, to 42 per cent as of the beginning of December.

The situation is still worrying, however, as the number of suspected cases has reached at least 513 with more than 200 deaths.

The epicenter of the outbreak is the coastal port city of Pointe Noire and Kouilou but there are now cases in the capital city Brazzaville and in Bouenza, Niari and Likouala.

A logistic challenge
The initial campaign was organized in the record time of 12 days. The logistics of immunizing an entire population were immensely challenging, as thousands of vaccinators and volunteers needed to be recruited and trained staff deployed.

UNICEF has procured 18 million doses of oral polio vaccine and is also supporting the reinforcement of the cold chain and the training of health agents.

In addition, social mobilization efforts - in the form of television and radio spots, SMS messages, banners, leaflets, posters and also town criers – are being spearheaded by UNICEF, with the generous support of Rotary International.

“Vaccinating a whole population is not an overnight task and comes at a cost,” said UNICEF Regional Director for West and Central Africa, Dr Gianfranco Rotigliano,  who visited Pointe Noire to support the nationwide campaign.

Funds are needed
This large-scale effort is made possible through the mobilization of partners from the Global Polio Eradication partners, who from day one have supported the Government efforts to address the virulent outbreak.

With the support of the UN Central Emergency Response Fund, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the CDC Atlanta, UNICEF and WHO, $4.5 million have already mobilized, in addition to a government allocation of $2 million.

Yet, UNICEF is seeking an additional $3 million to support the third round of the campaign scheduled for early January.

These extra funds are needed to ensure that immunization campaigns are mapped out to include the entire population, even those in hard-to-reach communities and urban slums.

Neighbours on alert
Given the high risk of further international spread, emergency outbreak response activities are also being carried out in the neighboring high-risk districts of Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Congo had previously recorded its last case of indigenous polio in 2000. “This polio outbreak is a stark reminder of how important it is to maintain a focus on eradicating polio,” added Dr. Rotigliano.

By Gaelle Bausson



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