DRC Completes Polio Immunization Campaign

26/10/2011 - With the help of the UN Children's Fund, 14 million children living in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have received polio vaccines.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has announced the completion of a large-scale vaccination campaign in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Thousands (yes, thousands) of mobile vaccination teams on foot, motorbike, boat and car set out to schools, markets, medical centres, offices and homes to immunize 14 million children against polio.

Between 1988 and today, the number of polio cases, worldwide, has declined 99 per cent – from being endemic in 125 countries to only 4 today: Afghanistan, India, Nigeria and Pakistan. However, four countries, including the DRC (along with Angola, Chad and South Sudan) have re-established polio transmission.

After being polio-free for years, the DRC was incurred 85 cases since January, coming to lead the world in a grim sort of way. The Congolese campaign, which began on October 20th, was aided by the government and was carried out in tandem with a vitamin A supplementation campaign. 

“Our goal is to eradicate polio,” said Victor Makwenge Kaput, Minister of Public Health, at the launch of the campaign. “To vaccinate one’s child is a gesture of love.”

Vaccine refusal rates, for religious or other reasons, in the DRC are among the highest in the world (between 13 and 32 per cent). Gaps in routine immunization are blamed for the resurgence of polio, say experts. Still, national immunization coverage increased from 10 per cent to 42 percent between 2001 and 2010. Unfortunately, progress has been limited to mainly middle- and high-income households.

UNICEF recently clarified a mistaken claim that wild polio had broken out in Madagascar, too. In actuality, the last reported case was in 1997. The confusion was caused by the detection of vaccine-derived poliovirus among three healthy children during an immunization campaign.

"The release may have led to a misunderstanding that there is an outbreak of wild poliovirus in Madagascar. UNICEF wishes to clarify that there is no such outbreak," said the agency yesterday.

Children must generally take three or four oral polio vaccines to be fully protected against the disease. In very rare cases, the virus active in the vaccine can mutate and cause paralysis – something none of the three children in Madagascar experienced. While an investigation has been launched to look into why the vaccine-derived virus was found in the children, experts suspect that the island population’s low immunity may have been a factor.

Between 2000 and 2009, says UNICEF, ten billion oral vaccines were administered, leading to 14 cases of vaccine-derived polio and 400 polio cases. Still, the disease has paralyzed 14,000 unvaccinated children.