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WHO Begins Second Round of Polio Immunizations in Sub-Saharan Africa

The World Health Organization, the United Nations Children's Fund and their partners begin a second round of polio immunizations in 24 Western and Central African countries. Health workers hope to immunize some 80 million children, under the age of five, against this crippling disease.

This is the largest polio vaccination campaign ever mounted in sub-Saharan Africa. It follows on the heels of a successful campaign, last month.

The World Health Organization reports the number of polio cases in West Africa is starting to drop. The head of WHO's Polio Eradication Campaign, David Heymann, says this suggests the huge epidemic that was emerging from Nigeria is coming under control.

"Many of the countries where polio is occurring now - Cote d'Ivoire [Ivory Coast], Burkina Faso, Chad and Sudan - had already got rid of polio, at one time," he said. "Now, they are re-infected and transmitting polio and we believe that they can do it a second time. Nigeria and Niger have never got rid of polio, but they are making great progress, as well. And, in some parts of Nigeria, in the North where immunizations were not given for about a year, 70 percent of children have now been vaccinated. So, we are very optimistic that things will continue as they are now and that polio will be gone from Africa."

The global polio eradication campaign suffered a major setback last year, when three Islamic states in Northern Nigeria suspended vaccinations. They claimed the vaccine was unsafe and caused infertility in girls. The wild polio virus re-infected 12 neighboring African countries, which had been polio-free. In an important about-face, the Islamic states ended their opposition to the polio vaccine and, last month, health workers were able to immunize most of their children against this crippling disease.

Dr. Heymann says he expects the operation to go ahead in most of the 24 states, without difficulty. He acknowledges that civil wars in Ivory Coast and Sudan are worrisome. But, adds he believes that, even in these war-torn societies, the campaign will be successful.

"Wars start and stop and polio vaccinations continue to go wherever people are working in their health systems," he said. "So, we are optimistic that people will continue to vaccinate in these countries and their children will continue to be vaccinated, because health services are continuing either in the south of Sudan through a series of NGOs [non-governmental Organizations] and health workers or in Cote d'Ivoire where health workers are still working in the clinics in both the north and the south."

When the global polio campaign kicked off in 1988, 125 countries had infections and about 1,000 children became paralyzed, each day. Today, WHO reports 943 cases of polio. Nearly 90 percent are in sub-Saharan Africa. The remaining cases are in Asia.

Dr. Heymann notes polio in Asia is rapidly decreasing. He expects the disease to be eradicated in this region, by March.

The World Health Organization says it needs $200 million to rid the world of polio by the end of 2005.