Following an outbreak of polio in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where a re-emergent strain of the paralyzing disease has struck over 60 people this year, International Medical Corps has helped launch a mass immunization campaign for children under five.
Polio, which is highly infectious and often strikes children, overtakes the nervous system and can cause paralysis within a matter of hours. One in 200 infections leads to irreversible paralysis – usually of the legs. Of those paralyzed, up to 10 percent die due to their breathing muscles being immobilized by the disease.
Lacking a known cure, polio was largely eradicated in Central Africa through the World Health Organization (WHO)-supported Global Polio Eradication Initiative established in 1988. As a result of mass immunization campaigns, polio decreased by 99 percent worldwide since 1988 but has seen a recent resurgence in Republic of Congo (which borders DRC to the west) where 324 cases have been reported as of November 9th. The disease is reported to have spread from the epicenter in Pointe Noir, Congo, to DRC where 63 cases were registered as of November 23rd. With no new cases of polio from 2000-2005, DRC had appeared to have eradicated polio – until the recent outbreak. Based on the explosive nature and high mortality rate of this particular outbreak, it is being considered a top international public health priority as the disease can easily spread across borders.
“All children have the same right to be protected from polio,” said UNICEF Representative in DRC, Pierrette Vu Thi. “Failure to translate this right into reality today will be expensive tomorrow, in terms of human lives and resources.”
As polio cannot be cured – only prevented – polio vaccines administered multiple times, can protect a child for life. Per the World Health Assembly’s 2006 resolution, three elements are pivotal to quickly averting the epidemic:
- Immediate, mass oral polio vaccine campaigns in areas where cases have been documented
- Mass, oral polio vaccine campaigns in areas bordering the current epidemic
- Heightened Acute Flaccid Paralysis surveillance in areas where cases have been documented & in neighboring areas
In addition, widespread social mobilization and communication campaigns should be conducted at the community level to ensure awareness about the outbreak, educate locals on the need for vaccinations, and to combat misconceptions regarding vaccinations. Conducting this level of response, however, is contingent upon rapidly mobilizing emergency funding from the global community. WHO has filed an appeal for funds from the humanitarian community to facilitate an emergency outbreak response.
Having worked to deliver health care and training in DRC since 1999, International Medical Corps stands ready to support partners and local health networks in implementing a response to the recent outbreak and helping to promote efforts to eradicate polio globally.
In DRC, International Medical Corps provides health care, nutrition, food security, sexual and gender-based violence prevention and treatment, and water/sanitation services. In many remote areas of North and South Kivu Provinces, International Medical Corps is the only international NGO that has maintained a permanent presence. Today, International Medical Corps supports 85 health facilities in the DRC, including 41 in North Kivu, 42 in South Kivu, and two in Maniema. In total, International Medical Corps has served more than one million people in Congo, 80 percent of them displaced by war.