85 million children to be immunized across 19 countries

DAKAR, Senegal — More than 85 million children under five years old will be immunized against polio in 19 countries across West and Central Africa in a massive example of cross-border cooperation aimed at stopping a year-long polio epidemic the World Health Organization announced in a press release March 4.

Nine countries in West and Central Africa – Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Senegal and Sierra Leone — are considered to have active outbreaks of polio.

The campaign kicks off March 6 in these countries as well as Nigeria, Ghana, Benin, Central African Republic, Gambia, Cape Verde and Guinea Bissau. Niger, Togo and Cote d’Ivoire will join later because of political transitions or elections.

In most countries, the first round is March 6-9 and the second round April 24-27.

More than 400,000 volunteers and health workers will take part in the campaign, which is part of an ongoing response to the epidemic that first spread from polio-endemic Nigeria to its polio-free neighbors in 2008 and is still paralyzing children in West and Central Africa.

This complex logistical operation is largely made possible by $30 million in funding released by Rotary International.

Luis Gomes Sambo, the WHO’s regional director for Africa, said the synchronized campaign showed Africa's determination to be free of polio.

"From the top leadership to local district administrators in every country," he said, "we are each accountable to the African child — to vaccinate every child and achieve high coverage."

A previous round of campaigns in 2009 did not stop the polio outbreak because not enough children were vaccinated to stop transmission. After years with no cases, some countries lacked the necessary skills and experience to respond adequately to the outbreak, the WHO said.

New approaches being introduced this year include standardized, independent monitoring of whether children have been reached, better training for vaccinators to carry out the plans fully and appropriate deployment of experienced staff.

"With better coverage that leaves no child unvaccinated, these campaigns can succeed in making West and Central Africa polio-free," said Gianfranco Rotigliano, UNICEF’s regional director for West and Central Africa.

This campaign will be repeated on April 24 in the same 19 countries. In between, children in six countries with recent cases will receive an additional dose on March 26 as part of a new strategy that has proved successful in rapidly building population immunity where needed. These six countries are Burkina Faso, Guinea, Liberia, Mauritania, Senegal and Sierra Leone.

To end this outbreak, two drops of oral polio vaccine will be administered to every child at the door of every dwelling in all 19 countries. Volunteers and health workers will work up to 12 hours per day, travelling on foot or bicycles, in cars and boats and on motorcycles, in often trying conditions. Each vaccination team will carry the vaccine in special carriers, filled with ice packs to ensure the vaccine remains below the required cold.

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative is spearheaded by national governments, the WHO, Rotary International, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and UNICEF.