The ministries of health in both northern and southern Sudan, backed by the U.N. children's fund, the World Health Organization and other partners, are starting a polio immunization campaign in the African country. The groups aim to vaccinate nearly eight million children under five across the country in the next three days, but the big question is whether the warring factions in Darfur will allow the campaign to take place.
The aid agencies are calling on everyone to ensure the safety of people who administer the vaccines, especially in the conflict-ridden province of Darfur.
A spokesman for the U.N. children's fund, Michael Bociurkiw, says 40,000 vaccinators will travel from house to house in every community of the country. He says it is vitally important their lives not be put at risk.
"Safeguarding a child's health rises above any political differences that may exist in communities," he said. "It is imperative that where fighting continues, that vaccinators and monitors are guaranteed safe access and parents are able to present their children for vaccination."
"UNICEF and everyone else involved in this campaign, including the World Health Organization and government partners," continued Bociurkiw, "we urge everyone involved to put their differences aside and allow that the vaccinators reach the children."
Sudan was close to being declared polio-free in 2004. But the disease broke out again in Darfur due to crowded camp conditions and ongoing displacement. Emergency polio immunization campaigns followed and no cases have been reported anywhere in Sudan since June 2005. But UNICEF warns the risk of cross border transmission due to the movement of refugees remains high.
Bociurkiw says the aid workers' biggest fear is that the number and size of no-go areas in Darfur will expand and will prevent many children from being immunized.
"It is a problem that we are taking very seriously," he noted. "I know that we have just done a very extensive emergency preparedness plan to really map out the areas in Darfur where we can look ahead and get a better grasp of where we can and cannot go to deliver our services, for example, in health and water and sanitation," added Bociurkiw. "It is a very patchy map at the moment and again we are calling upon all parties to increase our access and guarantee our safety as humanitarian aid workers."
There were 350,000 cases of polio around the world in 1988 when the World Health Organization launched its global polio eradication campaign. This number now stands at 1,526.