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Polio Vaccination Campaign Under Way Across Africa

  • Gabi Menezes

Health workers in 23 African countries have wrapped up a campaign to immunize millions of children against polio.

In parts of Liberia, some health workers walk as far as 16 kilometers balancing boxes of vaccines on their heads and holding lists of villages in their hands. For years, health agencies could not risk going into Liberia because of civil war. Now that the fighting has ended, an intense campaign has begun to vaccinate children and educate people about the dangers of polio.

A group of people sing that they want to kick polio out of Liberia as they walk through the border village of Luanuatuo, announcing that a vaccination team is on its way.

Vaccinator Kou Gbanah says to eradicate polio, every child needs to be immunized. But in places like Liberia, where many refugees are returning now that life is more stable, it is difficult to ensure that every child is immunized. This is why the UNICEF and the World Health Organization have decided on a house to house program. Mrs. Gbanah says this is the best way to reach each child.

"When we used to sit in a particular place and call the mothers with their children they don't bring the children. But this time we go from house to house and it's very easy to get to all the children," she said.

The children are given the polio vaccine orally, and once they receive it their fingers are pressed in indelible ink. All children without marked fingers are given polio drops, as it makes no difference whether they have the vaccine multiple times.

Polio is caused by a virus contracted by drinking contaminated water or eating contaminated food. It attacks the nervous system causing paralysis and in extreme cases death.

Wars and refugee movements have helped spread the disease in West Africa. The United Nations had hoped to eradicate polio as early as 2002.

Instead, the number of polio cases in West Africa has more than doubled since last year. The new cases in the region are blamed on Nigerian Muslim leaders who boycotted the campaign, claiming the sera supplied by the United Nations were contaminated.

So far, $3 billion has been spent trying to eradicate polio around the world, more than is spent on respiratory diseases and malaria, which actually kill more children. But Liberia's chief medical officer, Dr. Benson Barh, said that in the long term the polio program, if successful, will be cost effective.

"It incapacitates the child to express his or her full potential. And that child may become a liability to society and so in the long run the negative impact is far more reaching than these other diseases," said Dr. Benson Barh.

Under U.N. guidelines, in order for polio to be officially eradicated there must be no cases of the disease for three years.