The Democratic Republic of Congo recorded 63 cases of type 1 poliomyelitis, the most virulent form, in 2010, with a sharp rise in cases over the past two months, according to health officials.
The largest number of infections, with 50 cases of paralysis, occurred in Western Kasai province, close to the Angolan border.
In neighbouring Republic of Congo, the same disease has killed 169 people and paralyzed 409, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Although polio usually strikes children under five, in both countries it is mainly adults who have been infected.
“Vaccination campaigns only started in this country [DRC] in the mid-1980s. Those now over 30 years of age have mostly not been vaccinated,” said Health Minister Victor Makwenge Kaput.
The UN Children Fund’s (UNICEF) representative in DRC, Pierrette Vu Thi, said her agency would provide 3.7 million vaccines for Bas Congo and Kasai provinces in December, in addition to 41.9 million vaccines already delivered.
“The current epidemic is alarming, but it is important to stay calm. We now have enough vaccines to meet our needs. There is no point in conducting mass vaccinations in Kinshasa, where no case has yet been recorded,” said Kaput.
“Citizens should employ basic hygiene measures, such as hand-washing and keeping latrines clean,” he added.
He went on to lambast certain religious leaders who “prohibit vaccination with no reason” and called on citizens to help the government “break pockets of resistance caused by the beliefs of various sects”.
Some preachers have reportedly claimed the vaccine causes sterility in women.
“The paralysis caused by polio is irreversible. We are in the midst of battle between traditional and modern medicine. There is a magical-religious perception of this disease. Children are sometimes taken long distances to consult healers, when in fact there is nothing they can do,” said WHO’s representative, Matthieu Kamwa.
Polio had been considered eradicated in DRC, where no cases were recorded between 2001 and 2005. The WHO had hoped to meet its objective of global eradication by this year.
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