Polio Experts Warn of Largest Epidemic in Recent Years, as Polio Hits the Sudan

GENEVA, Switzerland -- Epidemiologists of the Global Polio

Eradication Initiative have issued a stark warning that west and central

Africa is on the brink of the largest polio epidemic in recent years.  The

warning follows confirmation that a child was paralyzed on May 20, 2004 by

polio in the Darfur region of the Sudan, a country which had not seen the

disease in more than three years.  The virus is closely linked genetically to

poliovirus endemic to northern Nigeria, which has spread through Chad in

recent months.

   

Epidemiological data show that transmission of wild poliovirus continues

to accelerate at an alarming rate in the region.  In addition to the re-

infection of the Sudan, five times as many children in west and central Africa

have been paralyzed by polio so far in 2004 compared to the same period in

2003.  197 children have been paralyzed in Nigeria, following the suspension

of polio immunization campaigns in northern Nigeria late last year.

   

"There is no question that the virus is spreading at an alarming pace,"

said communicable disease expert Dr. David Heymann, the World Health

Organization's representative for polio eradication.  "The fact that the Sudan

is now re-infected is concrete evidence of the need to support a massive

immunization response right across west and central Africa." 

 

Heymann stressed

the re-infection of the Sudan is the latest setback to the strong progress

Africa had achieved in eradicating polio.  "At the beginning of 2003, only two

countries in sub-Saharan Africa were polio-endemic.  Today, however, Africa

accounts for nearly 90 percent of the global polio burden, with children now

paralyzed in ten previously polio-free countries across the continent."

   

Epidemiologists fear that a major epidemic this autumn (during the polio

'high season') would leave thousands of African children paralyzed for life.

Children are particularly vulnerable in west and central African countries,

surrounding Nigeria, as less than half of children in the region are routinely

immunized against a series of diseases, including polio.  In response to this

threat, they recommended plans to hold massive, synchronized immunization

campaigns across 22 African countries in October and November, aiming to reach

74 million children.  These campaigns could avert a public health tragedy.

   

Recognizing that the northern Nigerian state of Kano remains the epicentre

of the outbreak, federal and state authorities have been working to resolve a

local controversy over the safety of the polio vaccine which had led to the

suspension of campaigns in that area.  In May 2004, Kano state authorities

publicly announced to the world's press that polio immunization activities in

the state would soon be restarted.

"These campaigns could avert a public health tragedy," said Carol Bellamy,

UNICEF executive director.  "But to be effective they must have strong, grass-

roots support.  The first priority should be to increase community

participation in polio activities throughout the region.  Many families still

need re-assurance, in the wake of rumours spreading out of northern Nigeria,

about the safety of the polio vaccine."

   

"So many Africans in so many corners of this continent have risked -- and

in some tragic cases lost -- their lives to bring polio to the verge of

eradication," said Jonathan Majiyagbe, president of Rotary International, and

a native of Nigeria.  "All of Africa must now work together to ensure

that every child is immunized and protected forever from this devastating

disease."

   

With a global investment of $3 billion since 1988 for the eradication

effort, including more than $600 million committed by Rotary International,

responding to this looming epidemic will require an additional $100 million,

of which $25 million is urgently required by August for the first campaign.

 

Source: World Health Organization

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