A partnership between Mali's Ministry of Health and the UN children's fund UNICEF launched a third and final phase of polio immunisation on May 13th, aiming to reach 3.6 million children. Regardless of recent opposition from religious leaders, the three day programme plans to inoculate all children five years and under.
In West Africa, Burkina Faso, Cote d'Ivoire, Guinea, Mali, Niger and Nigeria are all taking part in the final phase of a global campaign organised by the World Health Organisation (WHO), UNICEF, governments and other partners.
A court in Mali sentenced five leaders of a Muslim sect to terms of up to two years in jail last week for blocking a previous round of polio immunisation in the eastern village of Tandio, close to the town of Yorosso near the border with Burkina Faso.
Polio immunisations were effectively blocked in April by the five leaders on religious grounds who told health workers that ' it was God who gives disease and God that takes it away'.
Members of the sect, which does not recognise any authority other than the authority of God, reportedly threatened health workers with death if they so much as touched a child in the village.
The health workers were forced to abandon the planned vaccination of children in Tandio, which has approximately 2,000 residents.
Prosecuting lawyers were pleased with the court ruling, and lawyer Hamidou Bocoum said that the action was needed to enforce respect for the authority of the state.
Head of the immunisation programme Nouhoun KoneIt, hopes that now that the leaders of the sect are in prison the villagers will accept the vaccinations. Health teams are being urged to use tact and not resort to force to make people accept a vaccination.
WHO had originally hoped to see polio eradicated by the end of 2004, but the campaign has faltered, most notably in Nigeria where northern Muslim clerics blocked polio immunisation for tens of thousands of children, claiming that the vaccine could cause infertility and was part of a western plot to stop Muslims having children.
The last ban, in Kano state, was lifted in July 2004, but in April WHO reported that while the number of new polio cases recorded in Nigeria had declined sharply in 2005, the country still accounts for more than half of all new cases of the disease recorded worldwide.
Polio is a potentially life threatening virus that usually strikes in childhood and commonly leaves victims severely disabled or consigned to a life on crutches or in a wheelchair.