Southern Africa ready for polio outbreak

South Africa’s Department of Health spokesperson Solly Mabotha said this week the department had put “every possible measure in place” to prevent the spread of the disease, which has caused a major scare in Namibia.

“The department views these developments with grave concern and has been in constant engagement with the Namibian authorities to explore collaborative response measures,” Mabotha said.

Zambian High Commissioner to Namibia, Griffin Nyirongo, said the Zambian government was assessing the situation and would act accordingly when the need arose.

“The Zambian authorities have been informed through the World Health Organisation system. They will be assessing the situation,” he said.

An official from the Angolan embassy said health problems such as polio and cholera have been rampant in Angola and government efforts to eradicate the two diseases have been on-going.

He said a massive immunization campaign was done against polio a few years back in Angola with the help of WHO and that the country was watching the current polio outbreak in Namibia.

Mabotha said the Department of Health had received notification about the polio breakout from the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD), which had indicated that at least 34 suspected cases of polio had been reported in Namibia.

The NICD had also said that 3 of the cases were confirmed cases of wild polio virus.

In an effort to counter the possible threat of the disease, Mabotha said the Health Department had convened an emergency response meeting with stakeholders, where it was agreed that the country would now step up its surveillance and monitoring measures.

“To this end the department has made a formal request to all health professionals, both in the public and private sectors, to be on high alert for Acute Flaccid Paralysis (AFP) cases ‘ that is cases that present like polio ‘ in people of all ages,” Mabotha said.

Other measures would also include placing all private hospitals on high alert and compelling them to notify the department of health of all foreigners entering the country and seeking medical attention.

The department has also launched an awareness campaign focusing on the more particularly vulnerable group of children below the age of five.

Namibian health permanent secretary Dr Kalumbi Shangula said this week that 2.5 million doses of the polio vaccine (monovalent Oral Polio Vaccine (mOPV) had arrived in the country and the immunization would start as scheduled from June 21-23 for the first round.

The vaccines have together with their transportation, cost the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) N$2.1 million (US$300,000).

Since the outbreak of the polio wild type 1 virus last month, cumulative cases reported to the ministry of health have now reached 53, of which 10 have died.

The ministry has started training regional directors and primary health care supervisors from all 13 regions for the mass immunization campaigns. The trainees will then train their staff in their respective regions.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has also provided technical support with a technical expert team, which will provide support to the national rollout of the vaccination campaign. The team includes two members from the Centre for Disease Control supported by the United States government.

The polio strain that has caused fears in Namibia is understood to be similar to the Indian type virus strain that was identified in Angola last year, though officials in that country managed to isolate the disease with assistance from the WHO.

The Namibian government has said it requires at least N$27 million to implement the immunisation programme for the whole country, as the disease was an “emergency case”.

Following reports about the disease breakout in Namibia, South African health officials said they had taken immediate steps to ensure that the epidemic did not head south, and were keeping a keen eye on developments regarding the disease.

June 2006
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