|Press Release WHO/43
20 August 1999
POLIO VACCINATION CAMPAIGN REACHES OVER 80% OF CHILDREN UNDER FIVE IN WAR-TORN DR CONGO
Despite fighting and electricity cuts in a country the size of western Europe, the campaign to vaccinate children against polio in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) successfully reached 8.2 million of the country's 10 million children under five, according to early reports from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), which spearheaded the campaign there. The figure should be closer to 9 million once complete data is received said officials.
Over 75,000 volunteer vaccinators delivered poliovaccine to children over a three-day period (13 - 15 August) in the first of three rounds of National Immunization Days in DRC. Fighting stopped in nine-tenths of the country to allow the campaign to go ahead, following the intervention of the UN Secretary-General Mr Kofi Annan, urging all sides to comply with truces for polio immunization.
In Kisangani, 70 percent of children were vaccinated despite the outbreak of fighting on the third day. A ceasefire was agreed by the Presidents of Uganda and Rwanda, following a request by Mr Annan. An extra "catch-up" campaign to vaccinate unreached children in that area is scheduled.
"This is a significant step that brings us closer to a polio-free world," said Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, Director-General of WHO. "War is one of the greatest hurdles that we now face in our effort to eradicate this disease. Through the joint efforts of the UN agencies, the Government of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rotary International and local authorities, we overcame this in the interests of the world's children."
DRC is the single biggest priority for the global effort to eradicate polio with the most intense virus transmission in the world. Over 16,000 health stations were set up throughout the country to vaccinate children during the campaign.
"We have been amazed at the turnout," said Dr Moudi, WHO representative in DRC. "Mothers in every village have brought their children to be immunized, often walking several kilometres with their infants on their backs to get this precious vaccine. We are confident that when the complete data comes in we will have reached nearer to 9 million children under five."
Mothers and children previously trapped in clinics in Kisangani because of the fighting were able to return home. Perishable vaccine stored in refrigerators in the area survived despite cuts in electrical supplies. The vaccine can resist heat for several days.
WHO, UNICEF, Rotary International and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are major partners in the campaign to eradicate polio from the world by the end of the year 2000. Since 1988, when this goal was established, the number of cases has fallen by 85 percent.
The effort in DRC relies strongly on the funding provided by Rotary International, the United Nations Foundation, and the governments of Belgium, Canada and the United States. National Immunization Days have been conducted in over 120 countries with formal truces for polio eradication having being established in Afghanistan, El Salvador, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Tajikistan.
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