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Polio eradication initiative targets 85m children

Mar 9, 2010, 1:22 PM

More than 85 million children under five years old will be immunized against polio in a joint global polio eradication initiative targeting 19 countries across West and Central Africa. It has been described as a massive example of cross-border cooperation aimed at stopping a year-long polio epidemic.

Nine countries in West and Central Africa: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Senegal and Sierra Leone - are considered to have active outbreaks of polio, that is, cases within the last six months.

The campaign kicked off on March 6 in these countries as well as Nigeria, Ghana, Benin, Central African Republic, The Gambia, Cape Verde and Guinea Bissau. Niger, Togo and Cote d’Ivoire will join at a later date due to political transitions or elections.

Over 400,000 volunteers and health workers will take part in the campaign, which is part of an ongoing response to the epidemic that first spread from polio-endemic Nigeria to its polio-free neighbours in 2008, and is still paralyzing children in West and Central Africa.

This complex logistical operation is largely made possible by US$30 million in extraordinary funding released by Rotary International, a major partner in the global effort to stop polio.

WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr Luis Gomes Sambo, said the synchronized campaign showed Africa’s determination to be free of polio.

"From the top leadership to local district administrators in every country," he said, "we are each accountable to the African child - to vaccinate every child and achieve high coverage."

A previous round of campaigns in 2009 did not stop the outbreak completely, as not enough children werevaccinated to stop polio transmission.

After years with no polio cases, some countries lacked the necessary skills and experience to respond adequately to the outbreak.

New approaches being introduced this year include standardized, independent monitoring of whether children have been reached, better training for vaccinators to carry out the plans fully and appropriate deployment of experienced staff.

UNICEF's Regional Director for West and Central Africa, Dr Gianfranco Rotigliano noted: "With better coverage that leaves no child unvaccinated, these campaigns can succeed in making West and Central Africa polio-free."

This campaign will be repeated on 24th April in the same 19 countries. In between, children in six countries with recent cases will receive an additional dose on 26 March as part of a new Short Interval Additional Dose strategy that has proven successful in rapidly building population immunity where needed. These six countries are Burkina Faso, Guinea, Liberia, Mauritania, Senegal and Sierra Leone.

The Chair of Rotary’s Africa Regional PolioPlus Committee, Ambroise Tshimbalanga-Kasongo, said:

"We at Rotary are proud to have provided the funding necessary for the March rounds and we call on others to play their part in making Africa polio-free by providing funding necessary for more high coverage campaigns."

To end this outbreak, two drops of oral polio vaccine (OPV) will be administered to every child at the door of every dwelling in all 19 countries.

A dedicated army of volunteers and health workers will work up to 12 hours per day, travelling on foot or bicycles, in cars and boats and on motorcycles, in often trying conditions.

Each vaccination team will carry the vaccine in special carriers, filled with ice packs to ensure the vaccine remains below the required 8oC.

The ministries of health are supported by, among others, key operational partners, including the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Anders Naucler, Health Coordinator for IFRC West and

Central Africa called for all-out efforts: "Hundreds of volunteers from our Red Cross Red Crescent National Societies will ensure that polio drops reach every last child. That is our challenge – and that will be the measure of our success."