Handicapped dance against polio

In a touching display of muscular singing and rhythmic dancing on stick-like legs with the aid of crutches, the handicapped adults of Theis in Senegal are drumming up their own style of social mobilisation campaign, calling on people not to let their children end up in wheelchairs and be crippled by polio like them.

Joining the chorus from mosques and minarets, from pulpits and presidential palaces, the word has gone out across 23 sub-Saharan African countries: starting on Friday, 80-million children will be immunised against polio in the single largest public health campaign in history.

This mammoth effort to halt a certain polio epidemic in Africa has brought leaders together to synchronise their campaigns against the crippling disease.

Until recently religious leaders were opposed to immunisation, fearing that the vaccine was tainted and could cause infertility in African girls. The northern Nigerian state of Kano had become the epicentre of a resurgence of polio after vaccines were banned last year. This inadvertently caused the virus to spread alarmingly beyond borders to Niger, Sudan and even as far as Botswana, about 5 000km south.

The Botswana case — one of the first cases of long-distance importation of the disease, identified as a Nigerian strain of the virus — was an indication that the disease knows no borders.

“Polio anywhere is a threat to children everywhere,” said Rima Salah, director of Unicef in West and Central Africa.

In response, Botswana launched a campaign in June, immunising 250 000 under-fives across the county.

The resurgence of the virus in countries once polio-free, triggered political leaders, celebrities such as Youssou N’dour and Unicef to hold an awareness-building drive last month with 150 Muslim leaders from West Africa to help convince the reluctant to support immunisation.

Last Saturday Nigeria’s President Olusegun Obasanjo himself, in a powerful symbolic act, tipped the oral polio vaccine drops into the mouth of a one-year-old girl in Kano state.

“We used to think polio was behind us,” said N’dour in an interview last week. “But now we know that it is still very much with us and we must immunise our children. Campaigns out of Geneva or New York have good intentions, but in Africa we have to communicate this message very powerfully and involve all the leaders, musicians, artists, imams, traditional leaders — everyone.”

The number of cases of polio had risen from 40 across nine countries last year to 200 new victims in the first half of this year. Most global polio cases are found in Nigeria — 544 out of 717.

The polio virus resides in the intestinal tract and is spread by oral and faecal means, putting children most at risk of contracting the disease. In immuni-sation campaigns, two rounds of oral polio vaccines are administered a month apart.

However the success of the initiative depends on meeting a critical funding shortfall of $200-million through 2004 to 2005 — $35 million is needed by November.

Sarah Crowe is Unicef communications officer for sub-Saharan Africa

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