- Millions of children along the borders of Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia are now to be vaccinated in the largest ever cross-border immunisation in the region, as once-eradicated polio again is on the increase in the African Horn. The massive campaign is to start this weekend.
Polio-free for almost three years, Somalia became re-infected last year with a poliovirus imported from Yemen, according to the UN's World Health Organisation (WHO). Since then, 215 cases of polio have been confirmed in the war-ravaged country and in Somaliland.
Since its re-infection in December 2004, Ethiopia has reported a total of 37 polio cases with four out of 11 the country's regions infected. According to WHO, the high-risk areas remain the cross-border Somali region of Ethiopia and north-central areas of Somalia, including the self-declared republic of Somaliland.
Kenya, on the other hand, has been polio-free for the last 22 years and remains so. Northern Kenya however is host to large populations of nomadic pastoralists, crossing the Ethiopian and Somali borders and therefore is seen to be at risk of importing polio, which may spread among the young generations of the non-immunised.
In Ethiopia, the polio vaccination campaign will administer two drops of oral polio vaccine to 956,886 children, from the two regions of Somali and Afar that border Somalia. On the Somali side of the border, vaccinators aim to reach a total of 1.7 million children in a nation-wide campaign. In northern Kenya, a total of 240,000 children are to be targeted in five districts bordering Somalia and Ethiopia.
The complex operating and unstable environments, exacerbated by recurrent drought and floods in Somalia and heavy rains in Ethiopia, continued to hamper the implementation of high-quality polio immunisation campaigns, according to the UN agency. International and national staff were having difficulties accessing conflict zone areas.
"For the synchronised campaign, every effort will be made to ensure that no child is missed," WHO said in a statement today. "Vaccinators and social mobilisers are strategically positioned throughout the countries," it added. Teams on the ground were to move from house to house, in cities, towns, and villages, and in hard to reach areas, using all transportation means possible.
"Vaccinators have been trained and sensitised to ensure that there is no discrimination in immunisation between those children living in poor or wealthy neighbourhoods, as the virus does not distinguish between rich and poor," the UN agency emphasised. The campaign was also involving religious and community leaders, women's groups, youth associations, schools, and governmental and non-governmental organisations.
The government of the Horn of Africa were confident that they could kick out polio again as they successfully did in the past despite the difficult environments they work in, the WHO noted. "We have done it once, we can do it again," has become the motto for mobilising troops in the region.
Depending on the availability of funds, three synchronized campaigns are planned for this year, in September, November and December in the Horn of Africa, WHO said. But globally, there was a funding gap of US$ 50 million for 2006.
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