Millions of Children in Central Africa Vaccinated Against Polio

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic
July 10, 2001

Thousands of health-care workers and volunteers came by air, by boat, and on foot. They spread out across four countries of central Africa—into villages, refugee camps, border crossings, and urban centers—to immunize 16 million children against polio.

The aim was to inoculate every child up to the age of five in Angola, Congo-Brazzaville, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Gabon during a five-day campaign that ended July 9.

According to early reports from the World Health Organization (WHO), which co-sponsored the event, the campaign appeared to come close to meeting its goal.

"Overall, preliminary results look very encouraging, but the final results won't all be in for another two weeks or so," said WHO spokesperson Claudia Drake. She added that estimates from preliminary results suggest that in Gabon, for example, the campaign reached nearly 90 percent of the children that had been targeted for vaccination.

The inoculation blitz, which involved about 250,000 health workers and volunteers, moves an ambitious campaign known as the Global Polio Eradication Initiative one step closer to attaining its goal of eliminating polio by 2005.

Limited Health Services

Poliomyelitis is a crippling disease that mainly affects children under the age of three. The international campaign to extinguish the virus was launched by WHO in 1988, when wild poliovirus was considered endemic in 125 countries.

Today, fewer than 20 countries are considered polio-endemic. The Western Hemisphere was declared polio-free in October 2000.

Yet polio is highly infectious, and some of the highest rates of transmission in the world have been found in Central Africa. According to WHO, Angola, Congo-Brazzaville, and the Congo account for 70 percent of all virus-confirmed polio cases in Africa.

Ongoing civil strife in some areas of those countries has made it difficult to reach children to deliver the vaccination. The fighting has also disrupted local health-care services.

At the same time, mass migration—either to avoid conflict or to find work—means that the wild poliovirus freely crosses borders. Gabon, for instance, is considered polio-free, but its population is at risk of transmission because of cross-border migration from polio-endemic countries.

Operating in War Zones

Continued on Next Page >>


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