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African Health Leaders Vow to Eradicate Polio

  • Lisa Schlein

Health Ministers from eight African countries attending a special meeting at the World Health Organization say they will step up efforts to eradicate polio by the end of the year. The meeting was called to tackle the dramatic upsurge of polio cases in Africa.

The African health ministers say they will do whatever is necessary to stop the escalating polio epidemic across the continent. The World Health Organization reports nearly 1,200 polio cases worldwide last year, compared to 784 in 2003. More than 1,000 cases were in Africa.

WHO officials blame the upsurge largely on religious and political leaders in Nigeria's northern Islamic states. They suspended immunizations against this crippling disease for 11 months, claiming the polio vaccine was contaminated and caused AIDS and infertility in girls.

The head of WHO's Polio Immunization Program in Africa, Dale Nshimirimana says he believes the global eradication campaign will meet its target despite the setbacks.

"I am really optimistic. Almost 100 percent optimistic with really interrupting the transmission of polio in Africa by the end of this year," he said.

The World Health Organization notes the major country risks include Nigeria and Niger where polio transmission has never been stopped. It says the continent is further threatened by the swift spread of the epidemic in Sudan and the halt of immunization activities in Ivory Coast due to civil unrest.

WHO reports Sudan, which had been polio free for three years, went from zero to 112 cases in the past nine months. This was caused by the spread of the polio virus from Nigeria. It says the disease now threatens the polio-free Horn of Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Gulf region as shown by a recent case in Saudi Arabia.

Authorities in the Sudan kicked off an emergency immunization campaign this week following the signing of the North-South peace agreement. Dr. Nshimirimana says the campaign appears to be showing positive results.

"The last week they had only one case," he said. "They were able really to control the epidemic. It is too early to say that. But, we are seeing signs that show that the epidemic is being really controlled. We hope that really with the measures that have been taken by the governments and partners, we hope that this epidemic will stop soon."

The African Health Ministers attending the WHO meeting agree to intensify their polio eradication activities with the goal of halting the spread of this crippling disease by the end of the year. They pledge to conduct at least five rounds of national immunization campaigns and to use every means possible to find and immunize all African children against polio.

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