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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
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."
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
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