The World Health Organization on Tuesday announced a mass polio vaccination campaign in Africa, the same day Ugandan health officials announced an outbreak of the highly infectious disease.
WHO officials in Geneva said the 15-country campaign would start as early as next week in Angola and Congo, neighboring central African nations that together have more than 50 cases. The bulk of the volunteer-staffed campaign will focus on West Africa, where Nigeria, the most populous nation in sub-Saharan Africa, has never managed to eradicate the disease.
Ugandan Health Minister Stephen Malinga said Tuesday that a 2-year-old boy was first diagnosed last week and four other children from his neighborhood tested positive. Uganda, which was most recently declared polio-free in 2009, is not part of the mass vaccination campaign.
Oral vaccines will also be given in Chad and Sudan, two neighboring nations that also struggle with polio.
The $42.6 million, donor-financed vaccination campaign aims to reach 72 million children in 15 countries. The campaign is a joint effort between the WHO, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, USAID, Rotary International, UNICEF and the governments of Germany and Japan.
WHO African Regional Director Dr. Luis G. Sambo cited the success of a previous campaign in 2009 and earlier this year that slashed outbreaks in Nigeria by 98 percent and slowed them to a trickle elsewhere in West Africa.
"In Africa we are seeing the essential government support that can make the difference between success and failure," he said. "But much more remains to be done to fill the gaps if we are to protect the stunning gains made this year."
Uganda's WHO representative, Dr. Joaquim Saweka, called for immediate help in the East African nation. Government officials said they feared the outbreak near Kenya's border also puts Kenyan children at risk and estimated it would cost about $5 million to respond.
Polio is an infectious disease that mainly strikes children under five. It is spread primarily by the feces of an infected person getting into the food chain. It causes paralysis and can be fatal.
The disease has dropped by more than 99 percent since the WHO and partners launched an initiative to eradicate the disease in 1988 through vaccinations. But the numbers of cases — fewer than 2,000 annually — have remained at a virtual standstill since 2000. Polio persists in a handful of countries, including Afghanistan, India and Pakistan.
The Gates Foundation was created in 2000 by the Microsoft Corp. chairman and his wife.