Drivers in West Africa are well used to hearing a tap on their door when they stop at traffic lights. They look out and see nothing, except for a hand reaching up to ask for a few coins. When they look down, the person they see often has the limb disfigurements associated with polio.
Thanks to a remarkable initiative spearheaded by governments, the United Nations, Rotary International, and supported by national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, this crippling disease could soon be consigned to history.
Over recent days, all 16 West African countries have co-ordinated their efforts to hold National Immunisation Days, or NIDs, and are reporting remarkable rates of 100 per cent coverage.
Polio rates have been dropping dramatically in the region: in 1999 there were 1,199 cases. This figure had dropped to 20 by this year, and only three countries, Niger, Mauritania and Nigeria reported new cases.
"The campaign was successful at many levels", noted Dr John Mulango, regional health delegate for West Africa. "Red Cross volunteers were active in all 16 countries, mainly playing a social mobilisation role, informing people where, when and why they should be vaccinated, but also directly administering vaccines, especially in the remotest corners of the desert or the forest, where the national health services could not reach."
Dr Mulango added that the profile of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in the region had been strengthened considerably through this campaign, and that financial support from the Federation had enabled new staff to be taken on for future health programmes in several countries.
"Also, in line with ARCHI 2010 (the Federation's African health strategy) the Red Cross in the region has forged new partnerships, and played its part in a carefully co-ordinated transnational plan", he stated.
The campaign was officially launched in Lungi, Sierra Leone, where the presidents of Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Mali signed the "Lungi Declaration", committing the Economic Community of West African States to eliminating polio from the region and contributing to making the world polio-free by 2005.
"Victory of total eradication of polio is at hand," Dr Rimah Saleh, UNICEF's regional director told dignitaries at the launch. "However, the time ahead is critical and we have to be extremely vigilant to ensure that all children are immunized and the last case of polio is recorded once and for all."
Sierra Leone is one of the last 11 countries classified as Polio endemic. National Immunization Days to eradicate Polio have been conducted since 1998 and in 2000 the Sierra Leone Red Cross with Federation support joined in the campaign, assisting the Ministry of Health and the other polio partners, by taking on the responsibility of the NID in one chiefdom.
More than 20,000 children below the age of five were immunized and 99.5 % coverage achieved. In view of this success the Red Cross this year more than doubled its efforts by expanding its human and logistic support from one to three chiefdoms, conducting social mobilisation in all three, and participating in two chiefdoms in the actual NIDs. All located in the district of Port Loko, an area only partly accessible last year due to rebel activities.
In total SLRCS provided 90 volunteers working with the Ministry of Health at 87 vaccination points. Visits were also made to 11.298 houses and a total of 39,199 children were immunized, more than 100% of the estimated under fives. The dedication and commitment of SLRCS was officially recognised when The SLRCS co-ordinator was given the task to lead and assist the Heads of State in administering the vaccine to the first group of children.
In Liberia, struggling to get over years of divisive conflict, 45 teams of Red Cross volunteers immunized 12,360 infants in the neighbourhoods assigned to them as part of the co-ordinated country-wide action. "Our volunteers went to schools and homes in the slums of Monrovia and got the kids out for vaccination", said Liberia Red Cross spokesman Jacob Bright. "We also checked for suspected cases of polio, which were reported to the health authorities."