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Polio vaccines reach Congo’s children

War causes no major problems in 3-day campaign

SHARE Polio vaccines reach Congo’s children

KISANGANI, Congo — Health workers trudged through burned-out houses and streets destroyed by shelling in a U.N.-led vaccine campaign to eradicate polio, reaching up to 90 percent of Congo's 11 million children under age 5.

The country's two-year civil war caused no major problems for the three-day campaign, which by the time it ended Sunday had reached both government- and rebel-held parts of the vast country, UNICEF executive director Carol Bellamy said Monday in Geneva.

But she conceded that parts of Congo remain out of reach for health workers.

"It has become increasingly clear to those of us involved in the campaign to eliminate polio that the major challenge around the world is war," Bellamy said. "The primary obstacle is lack of access to the children."

In a previous round of immunizations last month, a nurse was killed and two aid workers injured in an ambush in the country's east. A third and final round is scheduled for October, bringing the total cost this year to $18 million.

The Congo vaccination rounds are part of a worldwide campaign by U.N. agencies and their partners to eliminate polio by 2005. There are still cases in about 30 countries, and Congo is a top priority with one of the highest rates of polio virus transmission.

Despite the apparent success of the campaign, few residents turned out Sunday to meet Bellamy when she toured the city and visited with health workers going door-to-door to administer the vaccine.

A cluster of people held a sign saying: "We want door-to-door food distribution."

"How dare they distribute vaccines to people who do not have anything to eat?" said Justin Ngoy, 25.

Congolese rebels backed by neighboring Rwanda and Uganda have been fighting the government for two years.

The northern city of Kisangani was battered in June by repeated clashes between Rwandan and Ugandan forces backing rival rebel factions that left more than 600 civilians dead.

The economy has ground to a halt in Kisangani, once a holiday resort town. Food, medication and safe drinking water are all in short supply, contributing to the spread of polio.

Bellamy acknowledged the difficulties, but stressed, "Eradicating polio is as much important as anything else."

Thousands of people fleeing ethnic clashes in neighboring Katanga province arrived there in 1995, exacerbating overcrowding and poor sanitation, and setting off a major polio outbreak.

"More than a thousand cases of polio were recorded and we could not do anything," recalled Dr. Honore Lukunku, World Health Organization representative in Mbuji-Mayi. "It was terrible."

Polio is highly infectious. It affects the spinal cord and brain, causing paralysis and sometimes death. It usually affects children under 5.

Bellamy began her tour Friday in the central government-held town of Mbuji-Mayi, heart of Congo's diamond mining industry and its polio problem.

Nearly 10 million children — about 90 per cent of the targeted population — were vaccinated, according to UNICEF figures.

A similar immunization campaign is planned in neighboring Republic of Congo at the end of the month.