Sunday, March 28, 2010

Polio immunization returns to Guinea after new outbreaks occur


CONAKRY, Guinea -– Yeninka (pictured), 5, was born in a poor fishermen's neighbourhood in the suburbs of Conakry, the Guinean capital. She was healthy until a couple of months ago. Her father Soumah, a widowed fisherman, remembers what happened then.

"She woke up at 6 a.m., her body was very warm, and when I wanted to give her a bath, she couldn't hold on, she kept falling," he says.

Today, Yeninka is almost completely paralyzed; she can't move her legs and arms, and can barely talk. She was diagnosed with polio, the highly infectious viral disease that was once thought eradicated in Guinea.

According to UNICEF Guinea Child Health Officer Ibrahima Diallo, Yeninka has paid a high price for the lack of access to vaccines and health education in the country.

"Her mother has passed away and her father is often out fishing, so her vaccinations routine might have been neglected" he says. "Also, she lives in this very poor neighbourhood, which is hard to access."

Yeninka's case is not an isolated one. Since the end of 2008, a polio epidemic has been spreading from Nigeria to neighbouring countries in West and Central Africa. In 2009, there were 42 polio cases in Guinea, which had been polio-free from 2004 through 2008.

The outbreak here raises the question of access to immunization. The political turmoil this country has faced over the last few years has significantly affected children's health.

"The health system has not had adequate funding," says Dr. Camille Soumah, coordinator of Guinea's vaccination programme. "As a result, the government was not able to organize advanced vaccination campaigns that would have protected every child, even those in remote areas."

The new polio cases prompted the Guinean Ministry of Health – with support from UNICEF, the World Health Organization, Rotary International and other partners – to embark on a national immunization drive in which health agents are going door to door to reach all children under the age of five.

The drive is part of a larger effort in the region. A series of three-day campaigns, organized simultaneously in 19 countries, aim to vaccinate 85 million children and stop the polio epidemic by the end of 2010.

UNICEF Guinea is supporting outreach via local radio stations to spread the polio campaign message in rural areas. In Dabola, eastern Guinea, for example, community radio airs a health programme every day calling on families to stay home and wait for the health agents to vaccinate their children.

The broadcasts reach villages within a 100-km radius, and the message seems to be heard.

"This is the best way to convince reluctant families," notes Sekou Camara, the district health chief. "With the radio, we can spread the right message and raise awareness very easily."

Once all children under five in a household are immunized, the vaccination team uses chalk to mark the house with a large 'V' – indicating that every child has been reached.

"With good-quality campaigns that leave no child unvaccinated, [we] can succeed in making Guinea polio-free again," said UNICEF Representative in Guinea Julien Harneis.