This week, 15 countries across the African continent are launching a synchronised programme of mass immunization against polio. The 42.6 million dollars cost of the programme is being funded by the Gates Foundation, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, USAID, Rotary International, UNICEF and the governments of Germany and Japan. Around 290,000 health professionals will mobilize in each of the 15 countries, delivering drops of the oral polio vaccine (OPV) directly to around 72 million children under five. This follows other polio campaigns in 2009 and April this year to combat a resurgence of the disease.
Fresh outbreaks of polio cases spread west from Nigeria, the only African country where polio has remained endemic. Polio is a highly infectious virus which mainly strikes young children. It is transmitted through contaminated food or water and once in the intestines, can multiply and spread to the nervous system. In the worst cases, the infection leads to permanent paralysis.
Following the recent immunization campaigns, new outbreaks have slowed to just a few areas. Isolated cases have been recorded in Liberia and Mali, and one in Uganda, over the past five months. However, continual vigilance and ongoing immunization is required. This was shown by a recent outbreak in Angola, where 24 children were left paralysed this year. A similar number of cases were also reported in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo. Only if all children are immunized, can the disease be completely eradicated.
But the UNICEF spokesperson for West and Central Africa, Dr Gianfranco Rotigliano, believes that with concerted efforts to cover all countries through the immunization programme and commitment from all the African leaders, “we are on the cusp of an exciting possibility”, that the end of polio could be near. Judging by results from the trial of a new polio vaccine, Dr Rotigliano’s confidence is not misplaced. Research published in the Lancet reports on an even greater efficacy with a new polio vaccine, which was recently trialled in Afghanistan, India and Nigeria. Analysing blood samples taken from children who had received the new vaccine, it appears to be around 30% more effective in protecting against polio by producing a higher number of antibodies in the immune system.
Over the past year, Nigeria has reduced polio infections by 98% and this month the country is taking part in the synchronised campaign. More than 29 million children have just been immunized in twenty of the northern Nigerian states, the region where children are most at risk. This week and at the start of November, vaccinations will begin in the other 14 African countries (Angola, Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, DR Congo, Gambia, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mali, Mauritania, Liberia, Senegal, Sudan and Sierra Leone). All those involved will be hoping that with this extensive co-ordinated campaign and an even more effective vaccine for the future, the end of such a cruel disease as polio is finally in sight.