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Why Are We Still Fighting Polio and Leprosy?

CHWs in Kibera carrying a polio vaccination kit.

CHWs in Kibera carrying a polio vaccination kit.

Many people believe that polio and leprosy have either been eradicated or are no longer a threat to the world’s population. But in many parts of the world, particularly Sub Saharan Africa, these and other communicable diseases remain.

The reasons these diseases persist are varied and complex.  Poor nutrition and inadequate housing, as well as weak, underfunded healthcare systems with inadequate staffing and supplies top the list. It is no wonder that although Sub Saharan Africa has 11 percent of the world’s population, it carries 25 percent of the disease burden.

Providing health care is the main charge of many Aid for Africa member organizations, and polio and leprosy are part of their portfolios.

American Leprosy Missions

American Leprosy Missions fights hunger and poverty with community development programs for people like Madaki who are affected by leprosy.

Kenya was pronounced polio-free in 2011, but two years later 14 cases of  polio were reported in the refugee camps in the north. Because Nairobi receives large numbers of refugees and other transients moving through East Africa, it is now considered a risk area for the disease. To support government efforts to prevent further polio cases, community health workers trained through Carolina for Kibera’s Community Wellness Program, have joined efforts to vaccinate the most vulnerable to the disease—children under the age of five living in areas of risk. Even though  a lack of trust and misinformation about polio and vaccinations makes achieving high vaccination rates difficult, these health works exceeded their goals by 32 percent and immunized more than 14,500 children. These and other community-based efforts work.

For leprosy, there is no vaccine. The disease can only be treated and contained through multidrug therapy. American Leprosy Missions has been treating leprosy in Sub Saharan Africa and around the world for more than 100 years. It also works to help leprosy sufferers care for the disease and become productive members of their communities.

During the last 12 years, American Leprosy Missions has successfully supported the development of a leprosy vaccine. The vaccine is entering the testing phase and will undergo clinical trials in human volunteers by 2015. If all goes well, a viable vaccine could help eradicate this debilitating disease which now affects some 4 million people worldwide.

Eradicating diseases like polio and leprosy requires efforts at all levels, from the laboratory to community health workers. Aid for Africa members contribute significantly to the pattern of progress, which gives us all hope.

Want to learn more? Read our blog New Test May Signal the End for a Biblical Disease.