DAKAR, March 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Health
workers are preparing to vaccinate more than 116 million
children against polio across West and Central Africa in a drive
to contain an outbreak of the disease in conflict-hit northeast
Vaccination teams are aiming to reach every child under five
in 13 countries from Mauritania to the Democratic Republic of
Congo, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) said on
Fighting between jihadist group Boko Haram and the Nigerian
army has caused mass displacement, raising fears the polio
outbreak could spread across borders and throughout the region.
After two years in which polio appeared beaten in Africa,
Nigeria reported four cases in August, casting a shadow over
global eradication hopes, and driving the GPEI to launch one of
the largest synchronized vaccination campaigns on the continent.
"The goal is to ensure polio has nowhere to hide," GPEI
director Michel Zaffran told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"We won't reach every child - we are hoping for at least 90
percent coverage - but we will vaccinate as many as possible to
ensure that the virus cannot circulate in any given community."
The polio virus, which invades the nervous system and can
cause irreversible paralysis within hours, spreads rapidly among
children, especially in unsanitary conditions in war-torn
regions, refugee camps and areas where healthcare is limited.
Health experts estimate that for every case of polio that
paralyses its victim, 200 silent infections go undetected.
Some 190,000 polio vaccinators will travel house-to-house in
villages, towns and cities across the 13 countries, carrying the
polio vaccines in ice-filled bags to ensure they do not spoil.
The vaccination teams will reach children on the move by
targeting bus and train stations, toll plazas, and country
borders, said Rotary International, which is part of the GPEI.
Town criers, local guides, community leaders and radio
stations have been engaged to spread the word about the campaign
and educate people about its importance, according to Carol
Pandak, director of Rotary International's polio program.
"Through our successes in countries like India ... we have
learned valuable lessons about how to minimise the risk of
missing children," said Pandak, who described the polio outbreak
in Nigeria as a regional public health emergency.
The GPEI, launched in 1988, originally aimed to end all
polio transmission by 2000. While there has been a 99.9 percent
reduction in cases worldwide since the GPEI launch, fighting the
last 0.1 percent of polio has been far tougher than expected.
In Pakistan and Afghanistan, the last two countries where
polio remains endemic, 33 cases were reported last year. Before
these latest infections, Nigeria's last case was in July 2014.
(Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Astrid Zweynert.;
Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm
of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's
rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and
resilience. Visit news.trust.org)