Massive international effort to stop polio epidemic across west Africa

With west Africa on the verge of success, experts caution that complacency could breathe new life into outbreak

Massive international effort to stop polio epidemic across west Africa M Bachir Chaibou/WHO Niger

25 March 2011 – Health experts today confirmed that a devastating polio epidemic in west African countries is on the verge of being stopped – but warned that complacency could breathe new life into the outbreak. Since mid-2009, polio has re-infected eleven countries across west Africa, claiming many lives and leaving hundreds of children paralyzed for life.

A series of synchronized, multi-country immunization campaigns in the second half of 2009 and 2010 have now succeeded in all but wiping out this outbreak. A further multi-country campaign on 25 March and again on 28 April across 15 countries will aim to immunize more than 38 million children, by a network of more than 180,000 volunteers armed with 48 million doses of polio vaccine, to extinguish any remaining chains of polio transmission. At the same time, polio eradication efforts are further intensifying in Nigeria, the only endemic country in Africa; over the past 12 months, the number of new cases in the country has been slashed by an impressive 95% in 2010 compared to 2009.

But while the region stands on the threshold of a public health success, experts warned against complacency, cautioning that any pockets of unimmunized or under-immunized children could result in the outbreak gaining a second wind. This risk was further underscored with confirmation of a new case reported in March in Niger, across the border from northern Nigeria.

“These latest campaigns are critical to re-achieving a polio-free west Africa,” said Dr Luis Gomes Sambo, the World Health Organization Regional Director for Africa. “Under the leadership of the governments of countries across the region, this epidemic is on the verge of being stopped, but we must all invest the necessary resources to stop polio for ever in our Region.”

And the Regional Director for UNICEF in West and Central Africa, Dr Gianfranco Rotigliano to add: “We are now seeing the results of the tremendous efforts of the past two years. Tens of thousands of children have been spared life-long paralysis. But at the same time, we must remember that in 2010 alone more than 500 children and adults were affected and are today suffering the effects of this devastating disease, and far too many have died. We must ensure that the outbreak response continues and that all children are immunized.”

“At Rotary International, we will continue to do all we can to support communities and countries in their polio eradication efforts,” said Mr. Ambroise Tshimbalanga-Kasongo, chair of Rotary International’s African PolioPlus Committee. “Rotary members have contributed over US$1 billion to the fight against polio and will continue to do so until no child has to suffer from this crippling disease. We are proud to be able to be apart of this tremendous effort.”

Even after the outbreak is stopped, periodic vaccination campaigns, along with routine immunization, will continue to ensure immunity amongst the population and to minimize the risk of another outbreak. Key to success will be the continuing engagement of political, religious and community leaders whose support has underpinned the drive to stop polio in the region.

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