Angola + 2 more

Refugees Hamper Zambia's Polio Eradication Drive

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Lewis Mwanangombe, PANA Correspondent
LUSAKA, Zambia (PANA) - Zambia's drive to banish poliomyelitis by 2000 has been slowed down by the continued arrival of batches of un-vaccinated children from war-torn Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Annie Mtonga, the national surveillance officer at the Central Board of Health, says the influx of such refugees prompted officials to extend the national immunisation programme into border refugee camps.

Mtonga says emergency vaccination was planned after polio cases were diagnosed on the Zambian border with Angola where an outbreak of the disease was first recorded in April.

The first of a two-phase immunisation programme for these refugees and Zambian children in 38 districts was carried out from 23-24 July and 20-21 August.

Zambian health authorities described the programme as a ''mop up operation'' and the final stepping stone into a new millennium free of the dreadful disease called polio.

However, this optimistic outlook is getting crowded by the lack of tengible signs of a possible end to the hostilities in Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Zambia shares more than 2,000 km border with Congo and another 1,500 km with Angola. Because of fighting, the two countries have failed to immunise all the children and therefore continue to be reservoirs of the wild poliovirus.

UN Secretary-General Koffi Annan has already condemned the fighters in Congo for disrupting the universal immunisation programme against polio.

''It is unacceptable that this fighting is taking place during the national immunisation days, which were supposed to provide the opportunity for some 10 million children to be immunised against polio,'' he said in a statement, after the recent fighting between Rwandan and Ugandan forces, backing different rebel factions, in Kisangani.

Annan's anger was justifiable because the belligerents had pledged to observe a truce between 8-20 August, to facilitate the vaccination of millions of children against polio.

The fighting in Kisangani led to the death of civilians and trapped hundreds of women and children in health centres where they had gone for the exercise.

The precarious security situation is a matter of concern to health authorities in Zambia, who say the country was almost on the verge of kicking out polio for good.

Denis Figov, chairman of the PolioPlus Programme of Rotary International in district 9210, admits grudgingly that though Zambia exceeded immunisation targets it has been difficult for it to become polio free.

''With the influx of many refugees from our neighbouring countries we are holding sub-national immunisation days this July and August in the areas close to our borders,'' he says.

Except for Zambia, most countries under district 9210 are close to becoming polio-free. These include Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Malawi, the fourth member of the district, is similarly being said to be on target.

Figov remains optimistic that countries in this district could still achieve the original aim of a polio-free Africa by the end of December 2000.

But the struggle against polio in Zambia has also been impeded by traditional beliefs and malicious gossip.

Annie Mwale, a 30-year-old housewife, in N'gombe squatter township of Lusaka, sadly recalls how she became a victim of one of these two.

In June 1996 - when the first anti-polio drive was launched under the slogan ''Bye Bye Polio'' with under-five children symbolically waving away the disease on national television - she was among the first to be trapped in the web of lies and unfounded tales.

Among the lies peddled then was that the vaccines used were drugs meant to create impotent baby boys.

Annie had believed them and turned to her mother. She was told that there was nothing better than African medicine for such a disease - a concoction of roots, tree bark and leaves.

The roots failed to keep away the alleged evils spirits and her little boy was savaged by polio. Today he is unable to walk without a shoe with callipers on the right leg.

In spite of these setbacks, Zambia has continued to soldier on, with an eye placed on the possible eradication of polio by 2000.

''The secret to polio eradication is in all children under five in the entire country receiving these two extra drops of polio vaccine,'' President Frederick Chiluba noted when he flagged off the first anti-polio campaign.

The struggle has been joined by former polio victims who have grouped themselves under an umbrella known as the Polio Fellowship of Zambia.

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