Yellow fever vaccination campaign targeting 12 million people to start

GENEVA and NEW YORK — The largest-ever yellow fever mass vaccination campaign is set to kick off next week across three African countries, the World Health Organization announced Nov. 17.

The weeklong event will target 11.9 million people across Benin, Liberia and Sierra Leone, all three of which are at high risk of yellow fever outbreaks.

The campaign — supported by the WHO, UNICEF, national Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Médecins sans Frontières and other partners — is the first in which yellow fever vaccination drives will be simultaneously launched across several countries. The drives will be administered by local health teams and will also offer a package of interventions, including vitamin A, deworming tablets and, in Sierra Leone, measles vaccine.

”High vaccination coverage will prevent outbreaks of yellow fever, a disease that is very difficult to diagnose in the early stages of infection,’’ said Dr. William Perea, coordinator of the WHO Epidemic Readiness and Intervention unit. “A single dose of the vaccine offers full protection.”

Perea expressed hope that vaccination campaigns would be carried out throughout all high-risk African countries by 2015.

Benin, Liberia and Sierra Leone are the latest three of the 13 highest-risk African countries to carry out preventive campaigns. Since 2007, 29 million people have been protected through mass vaccinations conducted in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Mali, Senegal and Togo, as well as a first phase completed in Sierra Leone.

A contribution of $103 million from the GAVI Alliance for 2007 to 2010 helped establish the vaccine stockpile, fund vaccine and operational costs of vaccination, conduct surveillance and risk assessment to identify high-risk populations and strengthen vaccine safety monitoring.

Vaccination against yellow fever early in life is also a crucial strategy in affected countries. "Thirty-seven countries in Africa and the Americas have introduced yellow fever vaccine in their routine childhood immunization schedule up from 12 countries a decade ago," said Dr Jean-Marie Okwo-Bele, director of the WHO’s Department of Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals.

However, 160 million people could still be at risk in Africa if further funding is not secured for the emergency stockpile and preventive vaccination in remaining high-risk countries. "Yellow fever is reappearing in countries that have not reported cases in many years," said Dr. Fenella Avokey, medical officer for Yellow Fever Control, of the WHO African Regional Office.

"We must finish the job we started to sustain the gains achieved so far," said Dr. Edward Hoekstra, UNICEF’s senior health specialist. "Children and adults in West and Central Africa are unnecessarily affected by yellow fever, when one dose of vaccine would prevent them getting the disease at all."