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Four central African nations, UN agencies launch major polio vaccination effort

Four central African nations, UN agencies launch major polio vaccination effort

As a massive polio immunization campaign got under way today in conflict-affected countries of central Africa, top United Nations health and humanitarian officials warned that that for all children to be protected, there must be respect for peace during the all-out effort against the crippling disease.

The campaign, which aims to vaccinate 16 million children in just five days, is a result of an unprecedented alliance that involves close coordination among Angola, Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Gabon. It is part of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, which is spearheaded by two UN agencies -- the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) -- and Rotary International and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The "synchronized" polio National Immunization Days in the region were launched today in Kinshasa by DRC President Joseph Kabila, who was joined at a special ceremony by senior representatives of Angola, Congo and Gabon, as well as WHO Director-General Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland.

"Your efforts are leading us to a historical milestone in international public health - the global eradication of the poliovirus," stressed Dr Brundtland. "Your success in the coming days in reaching every child with oral polio vaccine will be key in stopping transmission of this virus on the African continent, and around the world."

Tens of thousands of health workers and volunteers will be travelling door-to-door, boat-to-boat, market-to-market and camp-to-camp, vaccinating every child under five. Over 86,000 health workers will be delivering vaccines in the DRC alone. The UN peacekeeping mission in the country, known by its French acronym MONUC, is providing logistical support to fly polio vaccines around the country, while medical teams are providing technical support locally.

Careful coordination of the immunization activities between countries will allow identifying and immunizing children in especially remote regions, densely-populated and conflict-affected areas and refugee camps, UN officials said. Local health authorities are making special efforts at key border points to try to reach an additional 127,000 children, 90,000 of whom are in otherwise inaccessible areas of Angola.

The central African region is considered one of the last bastions of the wild poliovirus. Polio, a highly infectious disease, mainly affects children under three years of age, invading their nervous system. One in 200 infections leads to irreversible paralysis, while between 5 and 10 per cent of those infected with polio die when their breathing muscles are paralyzed.