West Africa: Thousands of volunteers mobilized to launch a final assault on polio

Published: 28 April 2010 0:00 CET

Amy Sallah, a young volunteer from the Gambia Red Cross Society, puts drops into the mouth of Youma Cham, an eight-month-old baby.

She is in the arms of her mother, Tarie Gaye, who is visibly happy, as is her father, Moustapha Cham, standing next to them and leaning on a crutch. Their little girl has just been vaccinated against polio in the second round of a massive synchronized vaccination campaign, which started on 24 April and aims to ensure that every child is properly immunized. The first round was carried out from 6 to 9 March.

For the Cham family and many other parents, the risk of paralysis caused by polio is a constant worry, as the consequences are irreversible.

“I have suffered paralysis since an early age and I am therefore very much aware of the importance of the oral vaccination against polio. It is why I personally make sure that my children are vaccinated,” explains Moustapha Cham. “It is the only way to ensure protection against this disabling disease,” he adds.

Resurgence of the polio virus

The disease has reappeared in numerous countries that already had succeeded in eradicating it. Cross-border population movements and poor coverage of routine vaccination programmes led to the spread of the virus in 2008 from northern Nigeria, the only polio endemic country, to other countries in the region.

A previous series of campaigns, carried out in 2009, failed to stamp out the epidemic completely, because not enough children were vaccinated to halt transmission of the poliomyelitis virus.

Nine countries in West and Central Africa have so far reported cases of polio in the last six months: Burkina Faso, Chad, Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone. Senegal is currently the country with most rife transmission of wild poliovirus type 1 in the world, with 13 cases reported as of 21 April.

Extraordinary mobilization to eradicate polio

In order to halt the spread of the polio virus, the infected countries and their neighbouring countries have joined forces to carry out a series of massive synchronized campaigns in a concerted effort to increase the immunity of children throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

These campaigns are organized by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, under the aegis of the national governments, WHO, Rotary International, CDC and UNICEF. The IFRC is an operating partner through the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in the region.

During the first phase of these campaigns, which was carried out in March, around 85 million children were targeted in 19 countries in West and Central Africa, achieving high coverage rates.

The second round aims to vaccinate over 77 million children in 16 countries. During the current “mopping-up” phase, efforts were strengthened in countries where around 10% of children were not vaccinated during the first round.

Burkina Faso and Sierra Leone have delayed their campaigns to 7 May on account of delays in the delivery of the vaccines, caused by the closure of air space in Europe after the volcanic eruption in Iceland.

Important contribution by the Red Cross Red Crescent

In order to ensure that the parents are well informed and understand the importance of having their children vaccinated, thousands of volunteers from National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies are organizing series of information campaigns.

In Gambia, 300 volunteers were mobilized throughout the country, with the result of over 381,000 children under five years of age vaccinated during the second phase of the polio campaign.

“Our volunteers organise social mobilization activities and go door-to-door to convince communities of the dangers of polio and the need to have their children vaccinated,” remarks Fatou Gaye from the health department of the Gambia Red Cross Society.

“We achieved 95% coverage during the first round and hope to reach 100% this time, thanks to the Red Cross activities,” explains Abdoul Aziz Ceesay, a Health Ministry official at Serekunda Hospital.

The hopes placed on the Gambia Red Cross Society were magnified by the country’s highest authority on 24 April. The most prestigious distinctions were awarded to the humanitarian organisation for its services to the nation and to individuals for their important contribution: Alasan Senghore, Head of the Africa Zone for the IFRC and Fatou Mass Jobe, President of the Gambia Red Cross Society.