News Reports Detail Lack of Action During Polio Outbreak; Ugandan Government Launches Vaccine Drive

Jan 72011

When young children in Uganda suddenly began testing positive for polio in the fall of 2008, Dr. William Mbabazi, a World Health Organization epidemiologist, wanted officials to launch an aggressive vaccine drive. Instead, the government dragged its feet for months while polio cases climbed - until a story appeared in the Daily Monitor, an independent, national newspaper.

In the central district of Wakiso, near the capital city, thousands rush to get vaccines for their children. Photo provided by New Vision.

The headline read, "Seven Million At Risk As Polio Strikes Again." Reporter Eve Mashoo and a colleague, both of whom worked closely with Knight International Journalism Fellow Chris Conte, detailed how the government was slow to act in the face of this potentially crippling outbreak.

Mashoo first met Mbabazi at a health journalism workshop run by Conte. Conte encouraged her to develop Mbabazi as a source. When Mbabazi was ready to speak out about the polio issue, he turned to Mashoo, a reporter he trusted.

“The government’s response was immediate,” said Conte.

Children in Gulu, in northern Uganda, anxiously await their vaccines. Photo provided by New Vision.

One day after the story appeared, the Uganda Ministry of Health held a press conference to announce a massive polio vaccine campaign, and immediately released $1.4 million to fund the effort. Scores of other media picked up the story, and the campaign began right away.

With such extensive news coverage, turnout for the vaccine campaign was unusually high, despite wildfires and other disruptive problems. It continued for months. The result: An estimated 6.7 million children in 78 districts were vaccinated, well over the targeted 6.1 million.

"It appears that polio has pretty much been stopped," said Conte.

The World Health Organization agrees. Recently the WHO noted that Uganda had been polio-free for a full year following the outbreak, and officially declared the country to be polio-free once again.

The Knight International Journalism Fellowships are funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provides additional funding on improving coverage of health and poverty issues in Africa.