UNICEF helps Namibia combat first deadly polio outbreak in 10 years

With polio infecting 34 people in Namibia within a two-week period after a 10-year absence, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is seeking urgent funding for a mass vaccination campaign to immunize the entire population of some 1.8 million in the southern African country against the often paralyzing and sometimes fatal disease. “We’re helping the Government gear up for door-to-door vaccination along with outreach to the far, far corners of the country, as well as fixed-site vaccinations in the cities and towns,” UNICEF country representative Khin-Sandi Lwin said, noting that 5 million vaccine doses were needed to fight the outbreak, which has so far killed seven people.“Going from 1 case to 34 cases within a two-week period, it’s quite alarming. Because it’s a population-wide issue, the whole entire population of the country needs to be immunized. It’s a small population in a very vast country so we have to go out to every small community that’s spread out throughout the country,” she added.Some 1,500 teams of vaccinators and 1,800 vehicles will be required to carry out this massive exercise. Experience in outbreak response has shown that quick and repeated vaccination campaigns reaching the target population are highly effective. With such intervention, most outbreaks are stopped within 6 to 12 months. Three of the 34 suspect cases of sudden paralysis are under investigation; 3 have been positively identified as polio. The majority of these cases involve people over 20 years of age, which is highly unusual. The poliovirus is more likely to cause paralysis in adults than in children, and also leads more often to death. Data gathered so far suggests that the affected adults had not been immunized, or were under-immunized. Since the virus mostly affects young children, vaccination campaigns typically target those under the age of five rather than a country’s entire population. The origin of the outbreak has not yet been determined. But according to the UN World Health Organization (WHO), the virus may have come from neighbouring Angola, which reported its most recent case in November. As long as the virus circulates anywhere, all countries face a risk of importation.Namibia has a functioning routine immunization programme and meets international standards of surveillance for acute flaccid paralysis, a possible sign of polio. “UNICEF has to support the Government very quickly but our funding is very limited, so the first thing on the agenda is to raise the funds for the vaccines and for a major logistical operation,” Ms. Lwin said. Worldwide incidence of the disease has been cut by 99 per cent since 1988 thanks to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative spearheaded by national governments, Rotary International, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), WHO and UNICEF, with a coalition that includes non-governmental organizations (NGOs), corporations, foundations and development banks.But the initiative faces a funding gap of $85 million for this year and a further $400 million for 2007 and 2008.

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