As Sudan grapples with the third-highest rate of polio cases in the world, the senior United Nations envoy to the country has urged the warring parties in the conflict engulfing its Darfur region to halt their fighting next week so that a three-day campaign to vaccinate nearly six million children against the disease can take place safely.
Jan Pronk, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative, yesterday told a press conference in Khartoum that he will approach the Sudanese Government and the Darfur rebel groups to ask that they observe “three days of tranquillity” during the immunization scheme, which is slated to begin on Monday.
Mr. Pronk said the special call for a break in hostilities is necessary because both sides have only been “paying lip-service” to a ceasefire they previously signed to stop the clashes in a conflict that has raged for almost two years, cost tens of thousands of lives and displaced more than 1.85 million people.
“And that means no action whatsoever,” he said. “That means that all forces should stay in the camps, in the barracks, not outside, not hampering any humanitarian action to reach the people in order to stop polio, to stop a devastating attack on the people of Sudan.”
With the help of some 40,000 volunteers, the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the Sudanese Health Ministry plan to vaccinate 5.9 million children – or every child under the age of five – across Africa’s largest country. Two further doses of the polio vaccine will then be administered at six-week intervals in February and April.
The series of national immunization days have been introduced because WHO figures show that Sudan had 105 identified cases of polio last year, the third-highest in the world after Nigeria and India. Cases were reported in 17 of Sudan’s 26 states, and 40 were discovered in Khartoum alone.
Mr. Pronk said the problem was particularly urgent because so many Sudanese have moved around their country in recent years, making it difficult for health workers to determine exactly who has and who has not been vaccinated. The country’s current winter means the polio virus is also less active now that it will be during the hotter months.
WHO’s Representative in Sudan, Salah El-Haithami, told the same press conference that the recent reporting in Saudi Arabia of a confirmed polio infection in a Sudanese child living there showed how rapidly the virus can spread.
Sudan’s recent outbreak began in May last year when the nation’s first cases were reported in more than three years. The outbreak was traced to northern Nigeria, where vaccinations were suspended in mid-2003 amid concerns from local religious leaders about the safety of the oral vaccine. Those concerns were proven to be baseless and the vaccinations have resumed there. But polio infections have now been reported in at least 13 countries in the region.
Meanwhile, the UN Advance Mission in Sudan (UNAMIS) reported fresh indications of fighting yesterday in Darfur between Sudanese Government forces and members of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), one of the rebel groups. Government helicopter gunships are reported to have fired rockets at Sayah, a stronghold of the SLA in North Darfur state. The number of casualties is unclear. Armed bandits are also reported to have attacked commercial buses and trucks across all three of Darfur’s state and looted passengers of cattle and personal belongings.