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U.N. Agencies, Rotary International Launch Mass Polio Immunization Campaign In Central Africa

The WHO, UNICEF and Rotary International on Thursday announced they will kick off a “mass polio immunization campaign in three Central African nations” on Friday “in response to a polio outbreak suspected in more than 100 deaths and deemed ‘unusual’ because it targets adults more than children,” the Associated Press reports. The outbreak was first confirmed in the Republic of Congo on Nov. 4.

The international aid organizations “said they will begin vaccinating some 3 million people in the Republic of Congo, its larger neighbor Congo and nearby Angola on Friday,” starting “in the coastal port city of Pointe Noire in Republic of Congo,” where the majority of the cases have been reported, “and will continue through the end of the year,” the news service writes (11/11).

“UNICEF said that suspicious cases began to emerge in October, with 73 cases being reported in a hospital in Pointe Noire the week of October 18 alone,” CNN reports. Since then, “[s]cientists have linked the resurgence of polio in the Republic of Congo – which hadn’t seen a case since at least 2004, according to WHO – to a virus circulating in nearby Angola,” the news service writes (11/11).

The polio outbreak in Central Africa “is the latest setback to a global campaign begun more than 20 years ago to wipe out polio, for which there is no cure, only preventive vaccines,” Reuters writes in an article that examines recent reports of polio outbreaks around the world (Nebehay, 11/11).

“As of 9 November, a total of 226 cases of acute flaccid paralysis (AFP) with an unusually high mortality rate of 97 deaths have been recorded. To date, four of the AFP cases have been confirmed as polio,” U.N. News Centre writes. “Most of the cases have involved young adults aged between 15 and 29, the agencies noted, adding that this shows that populations are at risk because they have not been exposed to a full immunization,” the news service writes (11/11). According to the BBC, “[t]he majority of reported cases and deaths had occurred in males aged over 15” (11/11).

The New York Times reports that though “[n]ormally, polio drops are given only to small children, … many teenagers and adults in central Africa are unprotected,” leading the aid groups to target “people of all ages” in the campaign (McNeil, 11/11).

“Every man, every woman, every child will be immunised irrespective of their past immunisation status,” Luis Sambo, WHO’s regional director for Africa, said, according to the AP. “This way we can be assured that everybody is reached, including young adults, whose immunity may be low,” he added (11/11).

According to Xinhua, Gianfranco Rotigliano, UNICEF’s regional director for west and central Africa, said, “The overriding priority is to vaccinate all people to prevent more cases and deaths as quickly as possible. We are at a critical juncture and stopping polio in Africa requires our absolute commitment.”

“Health partners including WHO, Rotary International, the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and UNICEF have so far secured US$4.8 million, 1.7 million doses of oral polio vaccines (OPV), and deployed a multi-disciplinary team of experts to support investigation of the outbreak, field activities and operational costs,” PANA/Afrique en ligne reports. “Another 5 million doses of OPV from Copenhagen, Denmark, should arrive in Congo on 12 November,” according to the news service (11/12).

CNN details additional polio immunization campaigns carried out in Africa, including one launched last month “in 15 countries targeting 72 million people – mostly infants and toddlers – around Africa” and one carried out in 2009, that helped to drive down rates of polio in Nigeria, according to the news service (11/11).

“Given the recent progress towards polio eradication in Nigeria (98% reduction in cases in 2010 compared to the same period in 2009), rapidly stopping the persistent poliovirus transmission in central Africa (i.e. Angola, DR Congo) and stopping new polio outbreaks such as in Congo, are top international disease control priorities,” according to a WHO update on the polio situation in Congo (11/9).