United Nations and international aid agencies are kicking off a mass polio immunization campaign across 19 countries in West and Central Africa on Saturday. The agencies say they aim to vaccinate more than 85 million children under five against the poliovirus in an effort to stop a year-long polio epidemic in the region.
The agencies say a previous round of campaigns in 2009 did not stop the polio outbreak that swept West and Central Africa because not enough children were vaccinated to stop polio transmission.
The aid agencies say they have learned from this experience. A spokesman for the World Health Organization, Rod Curtis, says more than 400,000 volunteers and health workers are taking part in this campaign.
"And, when you have 400,000 vaccinators literally going door-to-door to every single dwelling in these 19 countries to reach every child under five, this is very important," said Rod Curtis. "Epidemiologically, it is important because it reaches children everywhere. So, if you have families that are traveling to a neighboring country, it gets to traveling children as well. And, it also raises immunity both to stop this outbreak by reaching every child, but also to raise immunity to ensure against future outbreaks."
WHO reports nine countries in West and Central Africa have had outbreaks of polio within the last six months. They include Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Senegal and Sierra Leone.
The poliovirus spread from Nigeria to countries across West and Central Africa in 2008. Many of the countries, which had been polio free, became re-infected.
The polio epidemic initially spread in Nigeria from the northern Islamic part of the country. Religious leaders refused to allow their children to get immunized, claiming the vaccine was contaminated and could cause AIDS and sterilization.
Curtis says the religious leaders have since changed their view. He says Nigeria has benefited greatly from the north's participation in national immunization campaigns over the last 12 months.
"Whereas this time last year, polio was being widely transmitted throughout Nigeria, with 42 cases already recorded in 16 states by this time in 2009, this year we have had one case in total throughout the country," he said.
When WHO began its Global Eradication Campaign in 1988, more than 350,000 children in more than 125 countries were paralyzed each year. In 2009, WHO reports nearly 1,600 children were paralyzed by polio in 24 countries. So far this year, only 34 cases of this crippling disease have been reported around the world.
The aid agencies plan a follow-up campaign in the same 19 countries on April 24. These immunization campaigns are made possible by a $30 million contribution by Rotary International.