By Chioma Umeha
More than 190 000 polio vaccinators in 13 countries across west and central Africa will immunise more than 116 million children over the next week, to tackle the last remaining stronghold of polio on the continent.
The synchronized vaccination campaign, one of the largest of its kind ever implemented in Africa, is part of urgent measures to permanently stop polio on the continent.
All children under five years of age in the 13 countries – Benin, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria and Sierra Leone – will be simultaneously immunised in a coordinated effort to raise childhood immunity to polio across the continent.
In August 2016, four children were paralysed by the disease in security-compromised areas in Borno state, north-eastern Nigeria, widely considered to be the only place on the continent where the virus maintains its grip.
“Twenty years ago, Nelson Mandela launched the pan-African ‘Kick Polio Out of Africa’ campaign,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa.
“At that time, every single country on the continent was endemic to polio, and every year, more than 75 000 children were paralysed for life by this terrible disease. Thanks to the dedication of governments, communities, parents and health workers, this disease is now beaten back to this final reservoir.”
Dr Moeti cautioned, however, that progress was fragile, given the epidemic-prone nature of the virus. Although confined to a comparatively small region of the continent, experts warned that the virus could easily spread to under-protected areas of neighbouring countries. That is why regional public health ministers from five Lake Chad Basin countries -Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Niger and Nigeria – declared the outbreak a regional public health emergency and have committed to multiple synchronized immunisation campaigns.