K ANDAL - The little three-year-old girl had a look of calm and expectation on her
face, but that suddenly disappeared when she was given the droplets of polio vaccine.
She scowled with disgust and vanished into the crowd.
This scene was - more or less - repeated thousands of times during the first national
polio immunization day on February 11. By the time the second immunization day is
over on March 11, health workers expect that as many as 3.74 million children will
- like the little Kandal girl - know exactly what the medicine tastes like.
This year's campaign is expected to be the death knell for a disease that has caused
more Cambodian children to become handicapped than those maimed by landmines.
Underwritten by the Ministry of Health, the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the
Japanese and Australian governments, and Rotary International, about 4.6 million
droplets of oral polio vaccine are expected to be distributed.
About 5,000 health workers and 40,000 volunteers worked on February 11, including
- to the delight of television producers - Second Prime Minister Hun Sen and his
wife, and Co-Interior Minister Sar Kheng among others.
The build-up to the first immunization day appeared to be a public relations and
logistical triumph. To advertise the immunization day, planners prepared 70,000 posters,
two million leaflets and an unrelenting series of radio and television advertisements
which urged mothers to bring their children to the nearest vaccination post.
They came, as witnessed at Kandal, in droves.
The volunteers worked from dawn to mid-morning. For the remainder of the day, they
said, they would go from house to house vaccinating those children who had not shown
up in the morning.
They said that more than two-thirds of the children who had been pre-registered had
turned up at the vaccination stations.
According to conservative estimates published by UNICEF, in Cambodia, the number
of expected cases of polio is over 1,000 a year. UNICEF also said the disease was
"the most common cause of handicap among children," accounting for "almost
half of all disabilities in the under-15 age group."
The aim behind the immunization days, explained health experts, is to vaccinate all
susceptible children in one shot, thus making it virtually impossible for the wild
polio virus to find a human host.
They are confident that the two national immunization days - along with the
Ministry of Health's routine immunization program to combat polio - puts Cambodia
on course to meet WHO's goal of global polio eradication of the disease by 2000.
Polio, a crippling disease which strikes primarily in tropical climates and is caused
by poor sanitation, has been wiped out in most countries. However, cases still linger
in Africa and Asia.