Mass vaccinations will start today (Friday) in the Republic of Congo after nearly 100 people have died in the country's first polio outbreak in a decade.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) plans to vaccinate three million people in the port city of Pointe Noire, Kouilou, and 16 districts in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola.
Since the outbreak was confirmed last week more than 200 people have been paralysed and 97 killed by the crippling viral disease in the central west African country. Most of the cases have hit young people aged from 15 to 29.
Central Africa only started routine polio vaccination in the 1980s and focuses on children under five, which leaves few adults protected.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has called this ‘an unusually high mortality rate,’ and the government in Brazzaville, the nation’s capital, has declared an emergency.
“We have to stem this fast-moving outbreak,” said Unicef’s Gianfranco Rotigliano. “We are at a critical juncture and stopping polio in Africa requires our absolute commitment,” he told Bloomberg news service.
So far, 1.7 million oral polio vaccine doses, costing about £30m and several teams of experts have been mobilised to help in the campaign which will target people of all ages.
"The Government has a good assessment of the situation; it is worrying. Partners and resources are being mobilized to implement an appropriate response and to ensure a good take-up by the population,” said Georges Moyen, the Republic of Congo’s Minister of Health.
In Pointe Noire, the city where there are the most cases, the WHO’s Dr Bruce Aylward said: “We’ve got two hospitals with hundreds of paralysed people and many dead. And a couple of things about this outbreak are different and deeply disturbing.”
Polio normally affects little boys and girls equally, killing about 20 per cent of those it paralyses. Victims die when their paralysis moves up the spine to the nerves that control the breathing muscles. But in Pointe Noire, 85 per cent of cases are in teenagers and adults, most victims are male, and the death rate is much higher.
But that may change as experts gather a more accurate picture of the situation. “This is very much under investigation, Dr Alward said, adding that “it will take a few weeks to see whether the intense central African vaccination campaigns will fence off the outbreak.”