The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies warns a polio outbreak in 15 African countries threatens the global eradication campaign and puts many children at risk of getting this crippling disease. The Red Cross is appealing for more than $2 million to support polio immunization efforts in all African outbreak countries, except for Chad, which has not asked for assistance.
There were 350,000 cases of polio around the world when the World Health Organization began its global eradication campaign in 1988. Now, there are 1,851 cases including 192 new cases this year.
But, International Red Cross Federation Senior Officer for Health in Emergencies, Tammam Aloudat, tells VOA it is not these numbers that are scary for health professionals.
"It is not the ultimate number so far that tells us a lot about the outbreak position. It is the countries that had zero cases before and are having re-infection again," said Dr. Aloudat. "And, those are the best examples-Uganda, Kenya, Benin, Cote d'Ivoire and Burkina Faso. But, even the more drastic is Uganda has not seen a single case in 12 years. And, now Uganda has got five cases today. It is one of the worrying situations in the continent now."
Nigeria's decision not to immunize children caused virus to spread
Several years ago, northern Nigeria's reluctance to immunize its children against polio caused the wild virus to spread to neighboring countries. Religious and political leaders suspended vaccinations claiming the polio vaccine was contaminated and could spread HIV/AIDS and sterilize girls.
Dr. Aloudat says the spread of most of these recent cases of polio also comes from Nigeria, the last endemic country in Africa. He says there is still reluctance in some parts of Nigeria to immunize children against polio.
"This is probably one of the significant factors that are affecting the spread of polio outside Nigeria and one of the factors that keeps Nigeria as an endemic country 20 years after the eradication efforts started," he added. "If polio is not stopped now and if significant effort is not scaled up, polio poses the risk of jumping more borders and threatening more people including us who have the privilege of sitting in rich countries."
80,000 children to be immunized in next four months
The polio immunization campaign will target some 80,000 children under age five over the next four months. The campaigns are being operated by the Ministries of Health, with support from the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, spearheaded by the World Health Organization, Rotary International, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and UNICEF.
Thousands of Red Cross volunteers will fan out across local communities in all affected countries. They will knock on doors and make sure that as many children as possible get vaccinated against a disease that could cripple them for life.