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In Burundi, UN agencies urge temporary ceasefire for polio immunization

In Burundi, UN agencies urge temporary ceasefire for polio immunization

Concerned that continued conflict could hinder a nationwide polio immunization campaign in Burundi scheduled for later this month, United Nations officials in the country today called on all parties to observe "Days of Tranquillity" to allow the effort to go forward, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) said in a statement.

The UN Humanitarian Coordinator, as well as the heads of the UNICEF and World Health Organization (WHO) country offices, called on all parties to ensure safe passage of health workers during the next two rounds of National Immunization Days, scheduled for 20-24 August and 24-28 September.

The officials said fighting in Burundi limited humanitarian access to the most vulnerable populations, resulting in preventable deaths among children. During the course of the 10-day campaign, over 1.2 million children under five are to receive the oral polio vaccine while children older than 6 months will also receive Vitamin A.

The three UN officials said "Days of Tranquillity" had been observed in many other African countries with ongoing conflict, including most recently in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where a successful campaign reached more than 15 million children. These measures are the only means for Burundi to obtain polio certification, which is contingent on the eradication of the wild poliovirus in neighbouring countries, the officials said.

Despite the success of polio interventions between 1997 and 2000, the polio risk remains pronounced, as some provinces noted for insecurity witnessed vaccination levels of less than 80 per cent, according to UNICEF. The potential for polio transmission from other countries in the region, notably Angola, Ethiopia, the Republic of the Congo and particularly the DRC - whose borders are adjacent to the Burundian provinces with low-level coverage - is a real threat.

Following the recommendations of a March WHO Regional Meeting in Harare, the synchronization of National Vaccination Days was adopted as a regional strategy to prevent further risk and reintroduction of the polio virus in Burundi.

Launched in 1988, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative has reduced polio cases by 99 per cent - from an estimated 350,000 cases in 1998 to only 2,881 in 2000. "Because there is no cure for polio, the best treatment is prevention," says UNICEF, noting that the goal is to certify the world polio-free by the end of 2005. Last year a record 550 million children were vaccinated in 82 countries.