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Polio Deaths Reach 145 in Central Africa

  • Joe DeCapua

The World Health Organization is conducting a mass immunization program in three Central African countries, after hundreds of polio cases were reported. Nearly 150 people have died from the disease, hundreds of others are paralyzed.

The target areas are in Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola.

Sona Bari, who’s with the World Health Organization’s Polio Eradication Initiative in Geneva, released an update on the status of the emergency immunization effort.

“We started the first immunization response in the area where we’re seeing the largest number of cases, which is Pointe Noir in (Republic of) Congo…and the adjoining area of Kwilu. We have an ongoing response right now actually covering three million people…. That started on Friday and should be ending tomorrow.”

The immunization campaign also includes a few districts in the Bacongo Province in the neighboring DRC and Angola’s Cabinda Province. Cabinda lies between the Republic of Congo and the DRC.

“We’ll be following that up with the rest of the Republic of Congo and again adjoining areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola with another campaign starting on the (November) 18th, next Thursday.”

Polio takes a toll

“In (Republic of) Congo, unfortunately now we have 294 cases of paralysis – 270 of those are in the Pointe Noir department. And 145 people have died from this. It’s a reminder of just how deadly polio can be,” she says.

Bari says despite ongoing immunization programs in Africa, the outbreak did not come as a surprise.

“I wish it were more of a surprise, but we know that as long as we haven’t eradicated polio there will be outbreaks. And we’ve had a long and persistent outbreak of polio in Angola, right next door. So, it’s to be expected,” she says, adding, “What happened very unfortunately in Congo is that many of these people are adults, who may not have been immunized as children because of, as you know, this is an area of civil conflict.”

Bari says, “Adults tend to succumb to polio much more than children do and so the fatality rate is much higher.”

Follow-up

Once the emergency response to the outbreak is complete, supplementary immunization will be carried out to ensure there’s a “high rate of immunity” in the population.

“But the top priority right now,” Bari says,”is for us to end this outbreak and after that end the outbreak in Angola, where polio transmission has reestablished itself,” she says.

The WHO spokesperson says there’s been no resistance to the vaccination effort by the local population. For example, in years past, some parts of Nigeria resisted immunization campaigns, with some local leaders casting doubt on the safety of the vaccine. As a result, the strain of polio spread out of Nigeria and was later found as far away as Ethiopia.

“Actually, encouragingly, what we heard this morning [Monday] was that there is a high demand for vaccination among the population. And unfortunately this is often what happens after an outbreak. What we need sometimes to remind us of how important vaccination is in an outbreak,” Bari says.”

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