Jean-Luc Martinage, IFRC communications officer, global health
More than 7,000 volunteers in 10 West African countries have been involved in major multi-country synchronized vaccination campaigns aimed at immunizing children against polio.
The disease has been re-emerging over the past few months, with outbreaks in several African countries, some of which had not reported a case of wild polio virus in over a decade. As of 2 June, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative had reported a total of 506 cases of wild polio virus throughout the world, including 423 in Africa. There are 135 cases in non-endemic countries in 2009 as opposed to 25 in non-endemic countries in 2008.
On 8 April, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) raised the alarm about the urgency of the situation, launching an emergency appeal for 2.4 million Swiss francs to support Red Cross and Red Crescent societies from 14 countries in Africa to respond to the outbreaks. Ministries of health, with support from the Global Polio Eradication Initiative partners, have been organizing multiple synchronized polio national immunization days supported by Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers and staff.
“These outbreaks in the previously polio-free countries come as a sad reminder to the international community that the fight against polio is not over,” says Kate Elder, IFRC senior health officer responsible for polio and measles. “We need to act now to protect major efforts accomplished over the past 20 years to eradicate polio.”
In 1988, more than 125 countries across the world were endemic to polio but today this has been reduced to only four: Nigeria, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. However, with recent outbreaks across the continent, there are concerns that we must redouble our efforts to ensure that polio does not spread to countries which have worked so hard to eradicate it from their populations. In 2004-2006, a similar outbreak resulted in the spread of polio from Sudan to other parts of the African continent and beyond to Asia.
In May, Red Cross and Red Crescent societies in Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Sierra Leone, Togo and Nigeria took part in the immunization campaigns and some 350,000 Swiss francs were mobilized by a variety of donors to fund their social mobilization activities. Nigeria is not funded by the 2009 emergency polio appeal but is covered through regional funding, bilateral donors and the measles and polio annual budget.
“Our volunteers play a crucial role in convincing community members of the necessity to have their children vaccinated and protected from the threat of polio,” explains Elder.
“While this is an emergency situation, we are also working to balance the urgent outbreak response with our longer-term work in polio eradication, including the promotion of routine immunization,” she adds.
In Côte d’Ivoire, the National Society used around 330 volunteers to reach more than 200,000 households in February and March, with approximately 738,000 children vaccinated in March alone.
In remote villages
Funds have also been secured to support a campaign in the West African state of Burkina Faso. “We just completed the third round of vaccination that involved 570 trained volunteers in 24 regions. These volunteers went door-to-door, including in remote villages, informing local communities of the necessity to have their children immunized. They also took part in the vaccination campaign itself,” explains Dr Maxime Yaméogo, health coordinator at Burkina Faso Red Cross. “Their contribution is essential since we thought polio was about to be eradicated from Burkina Faso. However, cases registered last year are a clear sign that the fight against polio is not fully over and we must remain vigilant,” he adds.
Other campaigns have also been taking place or are currently planned in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya and Ethiopia.
As auxiliary to government, the role of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies in the polio response has been recognized and appreciated by Ministries of Health. The IFRC is also closely cooperating with the Global Polio Eradication Initiative partners that include the World Health Organization, Rotary International, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and UNICEF.