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WHO Warns of New Polio Outbreak in West Africa

The head of the World Health Organization polio eradication program says more regional synchronized campaigns against the virus are needed, as cases are increasing in West Africa. Seventeen new cases of polio were confirmed in Ivory Coast since last year, as the country's immunization programs were disrupted because of civil war.

WHO official David Heymann is in Ivory Coast, also known by its French name Cote D'Ivoire, this week to push for greater efforts in eliminating polio, warning that there is a danger that the disease could spread even more to neighboring countries if not dealt with immediately.

"Polio is a disease which is a danger to every country as long as it exists in one country," Mr.Heymann says. "So yes, there is a danger that polio from the Cote D'Ivoire could go to another country or polio from another country could go the Cote D'Ivoire. What we are here to do is work with all the countries in West and Central Africa so that there can be a synchronized campaign against polio, vaccinating in every country at the same time so that polio cannot escape anywhere."

The WHO blames the resurgence of the disease on the suspension of vaccination campaigns in 2003 in the north of Nigeria where Muslim clerics told villagers to reject vaccinations. Religious leaders believed that the vaccines were tainted by HIV or anti-fertility drugs, despite tests that proved their safety.

Although Nigerian immunization efforts resumed last year, they only reached 60 percent of targeted people. It is believed that the polio strain first came to the Ivory Coast from Nigeria, and Ivorian children contracted the disease because immunizations had not been properly carried out in the rebel-held North.

The Health Minister of Ivory Coast, Mabri Toikeuse, expressed his concern for the 17 children who are paralyzed by the disease and renewed his commitment to vaccination programs which begin again in February.

"The children are here, but as handicapped children for the rest of the life," Mr. Toikeuse says. "This is very bad like that - nothing we could do. What we need to do is prevention. But when prevention activities are not here, we could not do anything for them."

Refugee movements and war stricken areas in the region have made it difficult for the WHO to carry out comprehensive immunization programs and its original goal of eradicating polio by the year 2000. The organization now hopes to succeed in 2005.

Polio is caused by a virus contracted by drinking contaminated water. It attacks the nervous system causing paralysis, and in extreme cases death.