With Indonesia's largest recorded polio epidemic now threatening a broad swath of countries across Asia, more than 750,000 vaccinators will fan out across the vast archipelago tomorrow on a two-day campaign to immunize more than 24 million children under the age of five, the United Nations health agency reported today.
Indonesia had been polio-free since 1995, but since March, 225 children have been paralyzed, due to a poliovirus imported into the country earlier this year.
“In addition to paralyzing children throughout Java and southern Sumatra, the outbreak continues to expand, and there is great risk that it could spread into neighbouring countries,” said UN World Health Organization (WHO) Representative for Polio Eradication David Heymann, who recently returned from Jakarta, the capital.
“As with other infectious diseases, the poliovirus does not respect borders. The Government of Indonesia has assured the polio partners that it is fully engaged and committed to stopping this outbreak, and to doing everything it can to prevent further international spread of the virus.”
The Global Polio Eradication Initiative is spearheaded by national governments, WHO, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Rotary International and the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Tomorrow and Wednesday more than 750,000 vaccinators, health workers and volunteers, will go house-to-house and work at vaccination booths across Indonesia. With more than 6,000 inhabited islands, reaching every child will be a challenge. The campaign will be followed by additional rounds on 27 September and in early November.
The Indonesian authorities are working with hundreds of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on the ground, and have established a network of more than 500 mobile vaccination teams to ensure that children travelling through transit points, such as train stations, bus stations, airports and harbours, are not missed.
The polio eradication partnership is urgently increasing technical and financial assistance to the Indonesian authorities. Leading the civil society sector charge is Rotary International, which has raised more than $600 million for polio eradication since 1985.
“Reaching every, single child requires a massive communication effort in highlighting to parents the dangers of the current polio outbreak and of the need to immunize every child,” UNICEF Programme Division Director Alan Court said. “This is our best chance to protect Indonesia's children, safeguard vulnerable children across the region, and keep a polio-free world within our sight.”
Eradication efforts have reduced the number of polio cases worldwide from 350,000 annually in 1988 to 1,110 cases in 2005 so far. Six countries remain polio-endemic (Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Niger and Egypt), but the paralyzing virus continues to spread to previously polio-free countries. In total, 18 previously polio-free countries have been re-infected since mid-2003. In six of these (Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Chad, Côte d'Ivoire, Mali and Sudan), immunity levels were not high enough to prevent the re-establishment of transmission of the imported virus.