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Polio Virus Spreading in West Africa

  • Anne Look

A wave of wild polio virus is spreading in West Africa. Liberia, which was declared polio-free in 2006, has been forced to launch a vigorous campaign to prevent the virus from re-entering its borders.

Polio outbreaks in border towns of neighboring countries, like Guinea and Ivory Coast, prompted Liberia's Health Ministry to undertake an extensive immunization campaign to protect its children from the debilitating disease. It plans to immunize 650,000 children under age five.

Liberia's acting program manager for the Expanded Program on Immunization, Thomas K. Nagbe, says Liberia is one of 11 countries taking part in a synchronized polio campaign.

"There has been a re-emergence of this virus within the sub-region to the extent that even about seven other countries that were certified polio-free have been re-infected, countries like Togo, Ghana, Mali, the Ivory Coast, Benin and the rest of it. And looking at proximity, the borders that we share with countries like Ivory Coast, Guinea, that puts Liberia in a more vulnerable situation. For us, Liberia deemed it necessary to conduct this campaign to prevent importation of the wild polio virus in our country," he said.

Nagbe says Liberia also gave children de-worming medicine to prevent iron deficiency and vitamin-A supplements, as part of the initiative. In three counties, they distributed bed nets to combat malaria.

More than 60 cases of polio have been reported this year in West Africa.

Nagbe says this most recent threat can be traced to a 2008 outbreak in Nigeria that is moving westward. Cross-border trade and migration have put polio-free countries like Liberia at risk.

"The wild polio virus is marching from Nigeria, Togo, Benin, Ghana, all the way, so we have to realize the fact that once it is our next-door neighbor, it is obvious that if we are not vigilant or try to increase the immunity of our children, of our people, obviously we should expect importation in this country. So we are doing that basically to prevent importation of the wild polio virus and also join other country members to interrupt the flow of the transmission within the region," he said.

The World Health Organization and UNICEF are providing vaccine. The 11-country campaign is estimated to cost about $33 million to deliver nearly 90-million doses of oral polio vaccine to more than 74 million children.

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