Health workers are preparing to vaccinate more than 116 million children against polio across West and Central Africa, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) said on Friday.

This campaign is in a drive to contain an outbreak of the disease in conflict-hit northeast Nigeria.

Vaccination teams are aiming to reach every child under five years in 13 countries from Mauritania to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Boko Haram insurgency in North East Nigeria had caused mass displacement, raising fears that polio outbreak could spread across borders and throughout the region.

• Success in halting the spread of the wild polio virus through immunisation is one of the significant milestones in Nigeria’s health history since independence.

After two years in which polio appeared beaten in Africa, Nigeria reported four cases in August, casting a shadow over global eradication hopes and driving the GPEI to launch one of the largest synchronised vaccination campaigns on the continent.

GPEI Director, Michel Zaffran, said “the goal is to ensure that polio has nowhere to hide.

“We won’t reach every child but we hope to get at least 90 per cent coverage. We will vaccinate as many as possible to ensure that the virus cannot circulate in any given community.’’

The polio virus, which invades the nervous system and can cause irreversible paralysis within hours, spreads rapidly among children, especially in unsanitary conditions in war-torn regions, refugee camps and areas where health care is limited.

Health experts estimate that for every case of polio that paralyses its victim, 200 silent infections go undetected.

Some 190,000 polio vaccinators will travel house-to-house in villages, towns and cities across the 13 countries, carrying the polio vaccines in ice-filled bags to ensure they do not spoil.

The vaccination teams will reach children on the move by targeting bus and train stations, toll plazas and country borders, said Rotary International, which is part of the GPEI.

Town criers, local guides, community leaders and radio stations have been engaged to spread the word about the campaign and educate people about its importance, according to Carol Pandak, director of Rotary International’s polio program.

“Through our successes in countries like India we have learned valuable lessons about how to minimise the risk of missing children,’’ said Pandak, who described the polio outbreak in Nigeria as a regional public health emergency.

The GPEI, launched in 1988, originally aimed to end all polio transmission by 2000.

While there has been a 99.9 per cent reduction in cases worldwide since the GPEI launch, fighting the last 0.1 per cent of polio has been far tougher than expected.

In Pakistan and Afghanistan, the last two countries where polio remains endemic, 33 cases were reported in 2016.

Before these latest infections, Nigeria’s last case was in July 2014.

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