Health groups are trying to immunize more than 111 million African children against polio in only four days, hoping to stamp out an incurable disease that is all but gone in the West.
“Either we succeed in eradicating polio today or this initiative will falter tomorrow and polio will explode,” UNICEF West and Central Africa regional director David Gressly said in a statement this week. “Making Africa polio free is within our reach.”
Nineteen African countries will be covered by door-to-door volunteers starting Friday. Volunteers will kick off their four-day oral vaccination campaign in Nigeria a week later for logistical reasons. The campaign is part of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, which unites governments, the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and nonprofits to wipe out polio.
Polio, a viral disease that invades the nervous system, cannot be cured, only prevented. It mainly affects children under the age of five, leading to paralysis and even death.
The disease has been cut by more than 99% since the global campaign to eradicate polio was launched in 1988; India, which once had half of the polio cases in the world, recently marked a year without a case.
But if children do not continue to be immunized, polio can strike again. Between 2009 and 2010, infections reemerged in 23 countries that were previously free of polio, due to imports of the virus from elsewhere.
Last year, 650 cases were reported worldwide, with persistent pockets in Nigeria and along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The virus resurged in Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, Mali, and Niger. The World Health Organization map below shows where the wild virus was found in most of 2011:
Oral polio vaccines must continue almost universally for several years to reduce the risk, but only five West African countries have attained or maintained over 90% coverage over the past four years, with others showing gaps in immunization, the World Health Organization found last month.
The oral vaccine has been hailed as an easier way to ensure immunization, but in very rare cases can cause polio infections. The CDC says the benefits of the oral vaccine outweigh the risk in areas where polio is endemic or the risk is high, since it provides better intestinal immunity, but it is no longer recommended for routine immunization in the United States, where doctors inject the inactive vaccine instead.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: Nigerian children line up at a school in Lagos to receive polio vaccine in 2004. Credit: European Pressphoto Agency