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Polio effects linger in Ghana despite vaccines

When Maclean Atsu Dzidzienyo contracted polio as a nine-year-old, his symptoms worsened to the point where his nerves were affected and his legs became paralyzed. Now an athletic 26-year-old, he expertly maneuvers his wheelchair around the dusty compound of the Accra Rehabilitation Center (ARC), where he is completing his year of national service in the Center’s financial department.

Complications caused by the poliovirus, such as paralysis, contribute to reports from the World Health Organization (WHO) that Ghana’s disability rate stands between seven and 10 per cent.

“The majority of the people [who live and work at the Center] became disabled through polio, and a few of them had accidents,” Dzidzienyo said. “Hardly you will hear of somebody who was born with his disability.”

Among other West African countries, Ghana has taken strong measures to eradicate polio in the country within the past few decades, and has made significant progress from the time when Dzidzienyo was a child.

No new cases of polio have been reported in West Africa in 2012, according to the Polio Eradication Initiative (PEI). Ghana’s last confirmed cases of polio were in 2009. That year, country health officials publically confirmed that eight children had contracted the virus, which was an increase by about five cases from the previous year. Before these comparatively minor outbreaks Ghana had enjoyed a period of being polio-free since 2003, according to the PEI.

This is a welcome change to Alexander Kojo Tetteh, the founder and CEO of the ARC. He also contracted the virus as a child and had his mobility impaired, though he still retains his ability to walk.

The desks at his primary school were very difficult to maneuver into and the set-up required that the children sit in pairs. No one wanted to sit next to him because they thought they could be infected by his disability, he said.

“Nobody was friendly. So I was not happy as a schoolchild,” Tetteh added.

Children can get inoculated in two ways: with an injection of a dead strain of the poliovirus, or take oral drops, which are typically the most popular in developing countries due to their ability to inoculate more people. The oral vaccine is less commonly used in developed nations because the efficacy of the vaccine depends on the strain of polio it is meant to eliminate, as it is a live culture. It can also change to the form of virus that can attack the patient, causing paralysis and nerve damage.

The poliovirus is now virtually eradicated in many countries around the world due to the development of polio vaccines in the 1950s and a global immunization campaign that began in the 1988. However, the virus can still be found in some countries in Africa and Asia. Ghana continues to have yearly mass polio inoculations. This year’s three-day campaign in March expected to reach about 5.8 million children under the age of five.

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