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Africa | Nigeria

Massive polio immunisation drive throughout Africa

afrol News, 20 February - African states are launching a massive immunisation drive to stop polio this year. In Africa, polio only remains endemic in Egypt, Niger and Nigeria, and Health Minister from the three countries have committed themselves to end polio transmission in 2004 with a bold new plan for the mass immunisation. Traditional rulers in northern Nigeria however still may be hindering immunisation.

With outbreaks of poliovirus threatening the goal of eliminating the paralysing and sometimes fatal disease by the end of this year, African countries are launching a massive synchronised immunisation campaign aimed at vaccinating 63 million children over the next few days, the UN announced today.

- After eight years of incredible collaboration and investment, Africa is standing on the verge of a well-deserved triumph in public health, the World Health Organisation (WHO) Regional Director for the African Region, Ebrahim Samba, said.

But the disease is now threatening to make a comeback, as there was registered a 62 percent increase in polio virus in Nigeria in 2003. From Nigeria, where traditional leaders had halted the vaccination process, the virus spread back into West African nations where the disease had previously been eradicated.

- The whole continent is on the brink of re-infection unless these campaigns stop the further spread of the virus, warned Mr Samba. "Africa has proved it can stop polio - now is the time to finish the job," the WHO leader added in a joint news release issued by several UN and international organisations.

The campaign comes one month after an emergency meeting in Geneva where health ministers of the six remaining polio-endemic countries - Afghanistan, Egypt, India, Niger, Nigeria and Pakistan - committed themselves to end polio transmission in 2004 with a bold new plan for the mass immunisation of a total of 250 million children.

The UN today reports that "the campaign kicks off immediately and builds in the coming weeks, with 10 African countries – Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Ghana, Niger, Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Togo – targeting a total of 63 million children."

With the assistance of Nigerian health authorities, WHO claims to have been able to convince traditional leaders to stop hindering the vaccination. "Political, religious and traditional leaders will team up to launch the activities, and tens of thousands of vaccinators will go house-to-house over three days to administer the vaccine directly to every child," the UN reports.

Nigeria's suspension of immunisation campaigns in key northern states, and in particular Kano, remains the greatest challenge for a quick end to polio in Africa. Until mid-2003, Nigeria was part of Africa's polio success story, with only a few northern states still endemic with the virus and Lagos polio-free for over two years. The suspension of immunisation campaigns in Kano and the subsequent outbreak of polio in that area was fuelled by unfounded rumours about the safety of polio vaccine.

In recent months, polio has again spread across West and Central Africa from Nigeria, paralysing children in seven previously polio-free countries - most recently in the Central African Republic - and putting millions more at risk. But partners in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative say that if upcoming campaigns over the next several months reach every child, polio in Africa could be stopped in its tracks already this year.

The campaign to "Kick Polio Out of Africa" was launched in 1996 by Nelson Mandela and other African leaders. It is now championed by Professor Alpha Omar Konaré, Chairperson of the Commission of the African Union, and has cut polio cases down from 205 children being paralysed every day to 388 during the entire year in 2003.

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