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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 August, 2001, 10:40 GMT 11:40 UK
Congo's polio war
A band of tricyclists, crippled by Polio, who beg or trade on the streets of Kinshasa

In an extraordinary campaign to wipe out Polio globally, the World Health Organisation has pledged to innoculate 16 million children over five days in central Africa.

On a journey that takes her up the Congo river and deep into the tropical rainforest, Dinah Lammiman, explores why this high-profile mass vaccination is proving so controversial in the very countries it is trying to help.

Bofando Jean Claude is one of a band of tricyclists who rattle up and down the streets of Kinshasa, the crumbling capital of the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). He rides a very particular kind of machine, driven not by conventional foot pedals but by specially-adapted hand pedals. His legs are withered and useless.

Jean Claude, like many of these tricyclists, is a survivor of polio, a disease which accounts for around 20 million disabled people around the world - many of them in countries like the DRC.

Jean Claude was just eight when he contracted the disease. He'd wanted to be a journalist but has ended up begging on the streets of Kinshasa. He admits he resorts to threats, to try and make some kind of living to support him and his three boys.

Traditionally the tricyclists have made small amounts of money by trading goods back and forth across the Congo river - between Brazzaville in Congo and Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Baskets behind the bike seat carry food and other commodities. Other specially-made compartments under the seat conceal all manner of goods from the gaze of customs officers, unwilling to grapple with a disabled traveller in the search for illegal imports.

The disease

Polio is a terrible disease. Most at risk are the under fives. The lifelong effects are visible all over Kinshasa: teenagers drag themselves around, wearing shoes on their hands, their useless legs trailing behind, as they move around the streets trying to survive.

The campaign

The Congo basin is one of the last reservoirs of the polio virus. In July the World Health Organisation along with other international aid agencies launched a week-long campaign to immunise 16 million children in four neighbouring central African countries against polio.

It's the third year there have been these huge national immunisation drives but the first time Gabon, Congo-Brazzaville, Angola and the DRC have come together to fight the disease.

The aim is try and achieve the target of wiping out the disease world-wide by 2002, so the world can be declared polio-free in 2005.

In order to reach children in previously inaccessible border areas and deep in the country, ceasefires amongst warring factions had to be painstakingly negotiated in the weeks leading up to the campaign.

Shattered infrastructure

War is just one of the obstacles confronting the campaign organisers. The Democratic Republic of Congo is bigger than Western Europe and its entire infrastructure has almost ceased to exist. There are few roads, railways and not much left of its public health system.

With extensive resources of gold, diamonds and the rare compound coltan - vital to every mobile phone - the DRC should be one of the richest countries in Africa. But it's been pillaged over and over - first by the Belgian colonialists, then by a thirty year dictatorship under Mobutu Sese Seko. There are still around six armies from other countries fighting on its soil, vying for the DRC's mineral wealth.

The economy too is in disarray. To pay vaccinators and health workers taking part in the polio eradication campaign, millions of Congolese francs have had to be packed into rice sacks and sent by truck, plane and finally by bicycle, along tracks deep into the country, to towns hauntingly familiar - like Kikwit, scene of the Ebola virus eruption a few years ago.

A priority or not?

Nobody would wish polio on anyone. But in this country, where most people are trying to get by on around twenty cents a day, is polio eradication really a priority?

Malaria kills 250 thousand people a year here. Measles kills as many children while in a country where parts of the population are constantly being displaced, no-one knows how much of a killer AIDs is.

Above all, the one thing the Congolese need, is peace
Dr Machako Mamba
For the Minister of Health, Dr Machako Mamba, this campaign at least means the world is taking an interest - beyond just exploiting the DRC's minerals. Already the network of health workers and communication routes put in place by the polio eradication campaign is being talked of as a basis for a more comprehensive infrastructure that might be used to distribute mosquito nets to try and curb malaria, or vaccines for diseases like measles.

Dr Mamba sees the polio campaign as a chance to get the world to wake up to the other problems the DRC faces. Above all, he says, the one thing that the Congolese need; that could change the fortunes of this impoverished, destitute country - is peace.

Emergency ward head, Dr Kabamba
describes the realities of life in Kinshasa General Hospital

Forest sounds
from the Republic of Congo-Brazzaville

Listen to a Pygmy tribe
sing a song of welcome

Crossing Continents


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