- At least 80 million children across 23 countries in sub-Saharan Africa will be immunised against polio over the next two years - the largest single public health campaign in history - in an attempt to protect Africa's children from the threat of a looming polio epidemic. The campaign was inaugurated by Nigeria's President Olusegun Obasanjo in Kano State, where the vaccine had been outlawed.
President Obasanjo, who is currently also the leader of the African Union (AU), made sure the kick-off of the anti-polio campaign got a symbolic start. In the northern Nigerian city of Kano, the President on Saturday himself immunised the one-year-old daughter of State Governor Ibrahim Shekaru. It was Mr Shekaru that had hindered the global anti-polio campaign for one year, claiming the vaccine was unsafe.
The Nigerian President was joined by government officials from other African countries and Alpha Oumar Konaré, Chairman of the African Commission. Mr Konaré in a speech emphasised the importance of collective responsibility to fight polio and issued a challenge to all Africans to ensure that all children are immunised.
President Obasanjo's symbolic act in Kano comes almost one week before the real large-scale operation starts. Starting Friday, vaccination teams will travel by car, on foot and by boat to cities, towns and villages all over Africa to try to immunise every single child under the age of five against polio, which once paralysed hundreds of thousands of children around the world.
The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Global Polio Eradication Initiative yesterday welcomed the move, which has been organised partly through the AU.
The enormous campaign has been introduced to combat the recent upsurge in polio across Africa after the disease had almost been eradicated in 2002. In the past 18 months, cases have been confirmed in 12 countries after being previously confined to only Nigeria and Niger.
The fresh outbreaks began after regular immunisation programmes in Kano and other northern Nigerian states were suspended because local community and religious leaders held concerns - proven to be entirely unfounded - about the safety of the vaccine. Kano Governor Shekaru even claimed the vaccine was an US attempt to spread AIDS in Africa.
Under the current campaign, vaccinations will begin on Friday, with a second phase due to start in mid-November and more activities planned for next year. The strongest efforts will be made in northern Nigeria and Niger, where more than 80 percent of all cases of polio worldwide are registered.
Speaking after Saturday's launch of the campaign in Nigeria, WHO's Regional Director for Africa, Dr Ebrahim Samba, said "the leadership and the support of the AU for polio eradication efforts are a sure sign of the commitment needed to end polio." He also hailed President Obasanjo for his support.
The participating states are Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Congo Brazzaville, Congo Kinshasa, Cote d'Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria, Niger, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Togo and Sudan. In addition, Botswana has launched its own national anti-polio campaign after one national had caught the virus from Nigeria.
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