June 21, 2009

Brazil Holds Annual Polio Vaccination Program

Brazilian health authorities began their yearly polio vaccination program on Saturday that will immunize 95% of the country's children under the age of five this year.

The health ministry says the $24 million campaign will provide 14.7 million children with anti-polio injections. The second stage of the program will be taking place August 22.

Polio is an acute viral disease, usually affecting children and young adults, characterized by inflammation of the motor neurons of the brain stem and spinal cord, which can result in a motor paralysis, followed by muscular atrophy and often permanent deformities.

Polio vaccines are one of the great medical success stories of the 20th century. Prior to the development of the polio vaccine, no disease had ever inspired more fear and panic than polio did. Sometimes called infantile paralysis, polio would strike every summer and fall with increasingly virulent epidemics.

By the mid-1950s, mass immunizations began to slow polio's spread. In 1979, the last case of natural, or "wild-type," polio occurred in the United States.

The disease was mostly vanquished from the western hemisphere in 1991.

In 1980, Brazil held its first National Immunization Day for polio, and then went on to eradicate it after repeated vaccination campaigns.

"Now, the importance of the vaccine is to keep the country free of the virus that causes this illness. The shots don't have side-effects," the coordinator for the ministry's national immunization program, Maria Arindelita Arruda, said.

The World Health Organization is leading efforts to eradicate the disease entirely.

Unfortunately, the disease is still at large in seven countries, which include India, Pakistan, Nigeria and Afghanistan and several others, most in Africa where such vaccination efforts have not been implemented.

"The fact that polio is stamped out in Brazil is no reason for complacency," Arindelita said.

She added that the vaccination program would mean "if someone brought in the virus from one of those countries, children won't run the risk of catching the disease."