Nearly 300,000 health workers are fanning out across Africa this week to reach 72 million children as part of a United Nations-backed bid to drive polio out of the continent.
Vaccinators will go door-to-door in 15 countries to deliver two drops of oral polio vaccine to every child under the age of five in areas considered to be at highest risk of polio, a highly infectious and sometimes fatal disease that spreads from person to person.
The virus could infect virtually everyone who is not yet immune through vaccination, and there is no cure.
African leaders have demonstrated unprecedented cooperation and commitment to carry out synchronized immunization activities following the spread of polio from Nigeria to 24 countries in West and Central Africa, as well as in the Horn of Africa.
Thanks to these interventions, outbreaks of the virus have slowed to a trickle, with only Liberia and Mali recording any cases in the past five months. Nigeria, the only country on the continent never to have stopped polio transmission, has slashed the virus by 98 per cent in the past year.
However, eradication of polio is not complete in Africa, as evidenced by recent residual transmissions in Liberia, a less common type being imported into Mali, and a case in Uganda, which had been polio-free for more than one year.
“In Africa, we are seeing the essential government support that can make the difference between success and failure,” said Luis G. Sambo, African Regional Director for the UN World Health Organization (WHO). “But much more remains to be done to fill the gaps if we are to protect the stunning gains made this year.”
Together with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the US Agency for International Development (USAID), Rotary International and the Governments of Japan and Germany, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is helping to fund the $43 million synchronized activities.
According to Gianfranco Rotigliano, UNICEF’s Regional Director for West and Central Africa, the continent is on the cusp of an exciting possibility.
“Political leaders across Africa answered the challenge posed by this dreadful disease and the results are before us,” he said. “We need to continue efforts to vaccinate and put the needs of children in Africa first.”
The anti-polio drive kicked off in Côte d’Ivoire today, with similar campaigns being launched on Thursday in Benin, Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Gambia, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Senegal and Sierra Leone. Immunization activities will begin in Angola and Chad on 29 October, and in Sudan on 1 November.
Nigeria immunized nearly 30 million children in 20 high-risk states in the country’s north last week.