The eradication of polio remains one of the most pressing health challenges in Africa, stresses an advocacy report released by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) at the closing of the World Immunization Week.
Although Africa has gone eight months without any new cases of wild polio for the first time, the continent has witnessed the majority of global polio cases in 2013, and is home to one of the three last countries in the world where polio is still endemic, Nigeria. In 2013, sub-Saharan Africa showed the worst polio immunization record of any region. Central African Republic had the world's lowest polio vaccination rate, with just 23 per cent of children immunized against the disease, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
"Increasing vaccine uptake in Africa, specifically for polio, is such a huge task. We are faced with communities living in very remote areas or nomadic, fragile and conflict situations. The issue of access is exacerbated by suspicion and socio cultural barriers," says Dr Adinoyi Ben Adeiza, health and care coordinator, IFRC Africa. "We have seen first-hand how our Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers, who are trusted by their communities, can substantially increase vaccine uptake".
In Burkina Faso, for example, the number of children who were not vaccinated and still susceptible to contract polio, was significantly lower in areas where the Burkinabe Red Cross Society had conducted social mobilization activities.
Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers, like the ones in Burkina, have reached more than 10 million children and more than 1 million households in 17 sub-Saharan African countries between 2009 and 2013. They are trusted leaders in their communities and can ensure greater access to a combination of essential life-saving, culturally acceptable health care services to stop the spread of infectious diseases like polio.
Polio is highly contagious and one of the most difficult diseases to eradicate. About 90 per cent of all children in any given community must receive multiple immunizations to wipe out the virus. No other global health effort in history has posed such a logistical challenge.
Violence and high levels of insecurity continue to pose a significant barrier to access to health care in general, and vaccination against polio specifically. In fragile states where health professionals are particularly scarce, harnessing community resources and strengthening community involvement in health service delivery is vital.
"We believe every child can be reached but only if we invest seriously in the capacity and sustained engagement of local organizations and our local community health workforce," says Alasan Senghore, Director, IFRC Africa. "In order to achieve success, and prove once and for all that all children deserve the same life-saving vaccines and access to the same health services, no matter who they are or where they live, we must act quickly and in partnership with each other to dramatically increase vaccination coverage."
The report "Towards a polio-free Africa: Reaching the most vulnerable by strengthening community access to health care" explores initiatives currently underway in Africa to eradicate polio, the role technology can play in evidence-based data collection on polio vaccine uptake, and a call to action for governments to recognize the crucial role of the community health work force, including Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers, in eradicating polio.