International aid agencies are starting a mass immunization campaign against polio in 16 West African countries. In the space of the next week, the agencies aim to immunize 60 million children under the age of five.
The World Health Organization is spearheading the mammoth immunization program. Christine McNab is WHO communications officer for what is called the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. She says the success of this campaign depends upon hundreds of thousands of volunteers who try to locate and administer oral polio vaccine to all young children.
"They go by foot. They go on horseback. They go by bicycles. They go by trucks. They go by boats, every means of transport at their disposal to be able to get out to even the farthest reaches in these countries," Ms. McNab explained.
This is the latest drive in a global campaign to rid the world of polio by the year 2005. Ms. McNab says since these synchronized national campaigns started two years ago in West Africa, the number of countries where polio is endemic has been reduced from 20 to two.
"Of all those countries, Niger we have seen this year to date only three cases," she said. "Although every case has to be considered somewhat of an emergency now that we are down to so few cases of polio in the world. And, when we look at Nigeria, there we have seen so far this year 136 cases."
When the global campaign to eradicate polio was launched in 1988, there were an estimated 350,000 cases of polio in 125 countries. The disease now is confined to 10 countries, principally India, Nigeria and Pakistan.
The World Health Organization says fewer than eight cases exist in each of the remaining seven countries. They are Afghanistan, Angola, Egypt, Ethiopia, Niger, Somalia and Sudan.