BRAZZAVILLE, Nov 14 (IPS) – An emergency polio vaccination campaign began this Friday in Congo, where an epidemic concentrated in the southern city of Pointe-Noire has killed at least 100 people since the beginning of October.
According to the authorities, the epidemic killed 97 people in Pointe-Noire, the economic capital of the country, and two others died in Dolisie and Nkayi, in the southwest.
A statement from the World Health Organization (WHO) reported 184 cases of acute paralysis and 85 deaths, noting that most had occurred in the population over 15 years of age. Polio usually affects boys and girls under the age of five.
“It’s a very high mortality rate, considering the number of cases. It’s truly a national catastrophe,” said Jean Vivien Moumbouli, director of research at the National Laboratories in Brazzaville.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, an institution based in Atlanta, United States, where samples were sent for analysis, it is a malignant strain of polio virus type one.
In Pointe-Noire, the population is not well informed. The government has said very little about the disease. “We don’t even know what’s going on, we’re just guessing,” said Jean Bakala, a resident of Loandjili commune, which has recorded by far the most casualties.
“My 45-year-old father contracted polio. But the doctors didn’t want to get close to him, fearing they might get infected themselves. That shocked me,” Hermane Bouity told IPS. His father died several days later at the Adolphe Cissé Hospital in Pointe-Noire.
All the cases in that coastal city have been transferred to the two general hospitals in Loandjili and Cissé. “We are completely overwhelmed. We ourselves are afraid,” confessed a nurse at the Loandjili sanatorium.
“You don’t know what precautions to take, because we don’t know anything about this disease,” said Brice Mackosso, secretary general of the Commission for Justice and Peace, a non-governmental organization linked to the Catholic Church in Pointe-Noire.
“The government is fully responsible for the spread of this epidemic, because it has not informed (of its existence). One does not see or hear anything on television or radio,” said Roch Euloge N’zobo, of the independent Congolese Observatory for Human Rights. , based in Brazzaville.
“The reaction of the authorities has been very ineffective,” he added.
Three weeks after the first cases emerged, the government was still trying to identify the exact nature of the epidemic. It was only earlier this month that he sheepishly began to speak of a threat.
“It is a virus that attacks the nervous system, which paralyzes the body and causes death,” Alexis Elira Dokekias, general director of Health, explained to the state press.
“It is necessary to observe basic hygiene. The virus is found in feces and is transmitted orally. When there is no proper hygiene, it can be transmitted through water and careless handling of vegetables or fruits,” he added.
The vaccination campaign that began this Friday will first be dedicated to the residents of Pointe-Noire, and then to the rest of the country’s population. 12 million vaccines will be needed, according to Elira Dokekias.
“The vaccines came very late. Those affected can no longer be saved, because it takes at least three weeks for them to take effect,” said Anatole Bikou, a medical officer in Pointe-Noire.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) announced a contribution of five million doses from reserves in Denmark. The agency also made a call to collect three million dollars to acquire the missing vaccines.
Edouard Ndinga, in charge of the state Expanded Immunization Program (PEI), refused to specify how many doses the country already had.
“We have nothing. We are waiting for the international community to come to our aid,” N’zobo said.
PEI figures from 2009 indicated that the coverage rate for polio in Congo was 90 percent. The last outbreak of the disease was recorded in 2000. The authorities suspect that the virus came this time from “a neighboring country.”
According to the WHO, Angola reported 25 cases of polio this year, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo registered 28.
Among those affected in Pointe-Noire, four people had arrived from Cabinda, the Angolan province adjacent to Congo. “We have made our epidemiological surveillance at the border more flexible,” Elira Dokekias lamented.
The epidemic in Congo came at a time when international progress against polio is being noted. According to the WHO, the number of cases worldwide so far this year reached 767, about half of those recorded in the same period in 2009.
This improvement is primarily attributed to case reductions in Nigeria and India.
By Arsene Severin
UyPress – Uruguayan News Agency