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March 05, 2010

Sierra Leone Participates in Mass Polio Immunization

Sierra Leone is kicking off the first of three massive immunization campaigns against polio.  The program aims to reach over one million children nation-wide. The campaign is part of a larger regional push to eradicate polio across West Africa.

Polio was thought to have been all but eradicated in Sierra Leone. But ten years after the last reported case, new cases of the most contagious type of polio surfaced in the country last year. Sierra Leone will launch a massive immunization campaign Saturday - part of a larger effort to control polio in 19 West African countries, including Guinea, Liberia and Nigeria.

Over the next three days, vaccination teams hope to reach 1.2 million children under five years of age across the country.

Sierra Leone's Ministry of Health is partnering with the World Health Organization, the Red Cross, the United Nations Children's Fund and others to deliver the polio vaccine to every household in the country. Rotary International donated $30 million towards the first round of vaccinations.

Dr. Thomas Samba is responsible for child health at the Ministry of Health. He says the biggest challenge for Sierra Leone is getting the vaccine to the most remote areas of the country.

In the northern province of Koinadugu where roads are few and far between, local chiefs have hired bicycles. And on Sherbro island in the south fishermen are helping to transport vaccination teams. Dr. Samba says this grassroots approach is key to achieving total coverage.

A 2009 polio immunization campaign failed to stamp out the disease because it did not reach enough children with vaccines. This year, Sierra Leonean children will receive an additional dose after three weeks and a third dose one month later to ensure the population builds up immunity to the disease.

Thousands of volunteers will go door-to-door to administer two drops of oral polio vaccine to each child. But the vaccine must be kept below 8 degrees Celsius, a challenge in a tropical country where electricity is limited to the capital, Freetown.

Dr. Ismaila Nuhu Maksha, immunization specialist at UNICEF, says polio is entirely preventable, but remains a problem in Africa.

"If you walk across most of the streets in this part of the world, we will show you some people who have gotten paralysis as a result of polio, of either the hands or the feet or both. That is as gruesome as it is. That is depriving the child from something that is preventable," said Nuhu Maksha.

Polio is a highly infectious disease that invades the nervous system, causing paralysis within hours. It mostly affects children under five.

The World Health Organization says polio cases have decreased by 99% globally. But as long as one child remains infected, all children are at risk.