- Seven persons have already died and at least 27 have been paralysed by an unexpected polio outbreak in Namibia. Namibian health officials thought the battle against polio had already been won, following massive vaccination campaigns in the 1990s, and were thus not looking for polio as a "mystery disease" occurred outside Windhoek in May.
Namibia's Health Permanent Secretary, Dr Kalumbi Shangula, today announced the preliminary results from the diseased, saying the country has been hit by a polio outbreak. Further announcing an immediate "mass immunisation campaign," Mr Shangula said government would be "targeting two million people."
The test results had come from a laboratory in South Africa, accredited by the World Health Organisation (WHO). The Namibian Ministry of Health had been shocked by the results, which Mr Shangula called "quite a setback for us because we were moving closer to achieving polio-free status" from the WHO.
The first case of what has turned out to be a polio outbreak was registered in Windhoek's Katutura Hospital on 10 May. As others with similar symptoms arrived the hospital, parts of it became declared restricted areas to hinder further spread of what was called a "mystery disease". By now, the virus has killed seven people and infected at least 27 more.
Namibia has been polio-free since 1995 and there have been now indigenous polio cases in the entire Southern African region for many years. The source of the current outbreak in Namibia therefore remains a mystery.
"Preliminary results indicate a polio virus 1 Wild Type," Mr Shangula said today, which may indicate that the disease had never been properly eradicated from the country. The Ministry admitted that most of those now infected by the virus had missed out on the mass vaccination campaigns carried out in the 1990s. Most of the infected were in their late 20s.
A survival of the virus for ten years in Namibia, without any registered infections during that period, however seemed unlikely to many health officials. More likely, the virus had been imported from other parts of Africa, where the disease has yet to be eradicated. Since a polio outbreak in Nigeria in 2003, when the virus was left to spread wildly, a large number of African countries have re-imported the disease.
In most other countries, however, the arrival of polio was detected before other, non-immunised citizens had been infected. In Namibia, the disease already has been detected in three of the country's 13 regions, indicating that the virus arrived the country at least several months ago.
Mr Shangula today told Namibians that they should remain calm and assured the population of a fast campaign to vaccinate those who are not protected against polio. People needed to contact health centres, he said. The Namibian government had already been in contact with the WHO, asking for vaccines and equipment to be flown into the country as soon as possible.
The permanent secretary further said that Namibia would be able to count on the financial support from its development partners to fund the sudden mass vaccination. The Namibian government further was mobilising great resources on its own.
The spread of polio to Namibia and the Soutehrn African region is also a setback for the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, coordinated by the WHO, which until 2003 had eyed a final and worldwide victory over the paralysing disease. The Nigerian outbreak has now spread to the African Horn and Western and Southern Asia.
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