Sunday, May 31, 2009

West African countries respond to spreading polio epidemic

From ReliefWeb:

DAKAR/HARARE -- More than 400,000 polio vaccinators in 11 West African countries will immunize more than 74 million children over the next week in response to a spreading polio epidemic, which is threatening thousands of children with life-long paralysis.

This year, 62 wild polio virus cases have been confirmed in seven previously polio-free countries, as an outbreak from 2008 originating in northern Nigeria - the only polio endemic country in the region - has swept westwards. Last week, confirmation came that the outbreak had reached as far west as Guinea, after that country reported its first polio case since 2004.

To stop this dangerous spread of the disease as soon as possible, oral polio vaccine (OPV) will be delivered house-to-house across all cities, towns and villages in the region. To succeed, the army of volunteers and health workers will work up to 12 hours per day, travelling on foot or bicycle, in often stifling humidity and temperatures in excess of 40°C. Each vaccination team will carry the vaccine in special carrier bags, filled with ice packs to ensure the vaccine remains below the required 8°C.

Dr Luís Gomes Sambo, World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Director for Africa commended the leaders and citizens of west Africa for taking these critical steps. "We know most of west Africa has been polio-free before, we know this region has suffered outbreaks and managed to stamp them out, and we are confident that these countries will again be polio-free soon."

"This extraordinary coordinated response is precisely what is needed to stop this polio outbreak," said Dr Gianfranco Rotigliano, regional Director for UNICEF in West and Central Africa. "Every aspect of civil society in these African countries is coming together to achieve one common goal: to protect their children from life-long paralysis caused by this deadly disease."

This synchronized immunization campaign is the third conducted this year, following similar activities in February and March. In most of the re-infected areas, no new cases have been reported since the second campaign, however confirmation of cases in April in Benin, Burkina Faso and Côte d'Ivoire and the reported case in Guinea underscore the fact that the outbreak is ongoing. The immunization campaign launched this week is considered critically important, as the approaching rainy season will complicate reaching all children, and will intensify circulation of the polio virus in the environment. Campaigns will need to continue until the outbreak has been stopped and endemic transmission of polio virus interrupted in Nigeria.

To help support the immunizations, Rotary International - the private-sector arm of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative - is mobilizing its membership throughout the region. "We are more committed than ever to achieving a polio-free Africa," according to Ambroise Tshimbalanga-Kasongo, chair of Rotary's Africa Regional PolioPlus Committee. "Our members will participate across these 11 countries, mobilizing communities, engaging with political and traditional leaders, and of course vaccinating children. We are proud to support these countries in their efforts to protect their children."

Recognizing the urgency of the situation, other key players are also scaling up their capacity; in April, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies launched an emergency appeal in response to the outbreaks.

The full engagement of political leaders at every level - right down to the district - is considered critical to the success of the campaign. It is only through the full participation of this leadership that all sectors of civil society are mobilized to ensure every child is reached.

"Every child who remains unimmunized is not just at personal risk of contracting the disease," Tshimbalanga-Kasongo warned in conclusion. "Every unimmunized child allows the poliovirus the chance to survive and spread further. That is a real danger."

Notes to editors:

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) is spearheaded by national governments, WHO, Rotary International, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and UNICEF.

Since 1988 (the year the GPEI was launched), the incidence of polio has been reduced by more than 99%. At the time, more than 350,000 children were paralysed every year in more than 125 endemic countries. To date in 2009, 474 cases have been reported worldwide (as of 26 May 2009). Only four countries remain endemic: Nigeria, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Outbreaks in several previously polio-free areas are ongoing, including in west Africa, central Africa and the Horn of Africa.

The 11 countries in west Africa participating in the immunization campaign launched this week are: Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Togo.