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World is Closer to Goal of Eradicating Polio

The World Health Organization has set the goal of stopping the spread of polio worldwide by the end of this year.

Oliver Rosenbauer, a spokesman for the WHO's polio eradication project in Geneva, says new cases of polio are still being reported but only in a few parts of the world.

Mr. Rosenbauer says, "The eradication strategies work across the board wherever you applied them. The problem that we are seeing, in countries like India and Nigeria is that they are extremely densely populated countries. And so that makes it more difficult to eradicate the disease there, so more effort needs to be made in those countries and that's perhaps why its taking a little bit longer."

India and Nigeria are two of the nations where large scale outbreaks of polio have not been stopped. Mr. Rosenbauer says other countries include Pakistan, Afghanistan, Niger and Egypt.

According to Mr. Rosenbauer, "The problem we're seeing at the moment is that a new outbreak has occurred in west and central Africa, originating in Nigeria. And because its a communicable, contagious disease, as populations have traveled across borders they've brought the disease with them and reinfected a number of countries so that's certainly been a setback. In terms of a global situation for polio eradication, that's where the hot spot is at the moment -- in those three countries in Asia, [India, Pakistan and Afghanistan] in Egypt and west and central Africa [Nigeria and Niger]."

In Africa, the current outbreak spread from northern Nigeria to 12 previously polio free countries sometime last year. Among them are Ivory Coast and Sudan, where civil unrest and displaced people weakened, what the WHO calls, a "firewall" around the virus. Polio has also been discovered in Saudi Arabia where the virus is believed to have been brought into the country by a traveler from Sudan.

Melissa Corkrum is a spokeswoman for the World Health Organization in Abuja, Nigeria. She says the main problem in Africa came last summer in Nigeria's northern Kano State when an active vaccination program was stopped.

Ms. Corkrum says, "There were rumors spreading about different contaminants in the vaccine and the government halted campaigns to make sure that concerns of the people were addressed. There has really been a strong emphasis on rebuilding community confidence involving traditional leaders, involving religious leaders within communities."

This is the time of year in Africa when the polio virus is least likely to spread because of relatively mild weather. Ms. Corkrum says a massive immunization effort will be made this month and next [April and May] to give the vaccine to children, those who are most at risk for contracting the disease.

Ms. Corkrum adds, "The same thing takes place in a country like India. They have 170 million children where they [i.e., health workers] literally go door to door, and through strong microplanning really map out where the households are to make sure that we reach every child in the course of four days to even the most remote communities in Nigeria."

Polio in Africa has been reported in 13 other countries, from Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso to the Central African Republic, Sudan and Ethiopia.

In 1988, when the WHO began its initiative to stop the spread of polio, some 350,000 cases of the crippling disease were reported in 125 countries. Since then, the number of cases has been reduced by 99% to less than two dozen countries. The WHO's Oliver Rosenbauer says a successful vaccination program is the only way to stop its spread.

"There is no cure for it. Once you have polio, there is not much you can do about it. It paralyzes your legs and you will not be able to walk anymore," says Mr. Rosenbauer. "It can only be prevented. That is why it's very important to be vaccinated against it."

In January, 2004, when the six nations in Africa and Asia signed the agreement to eradicate polio, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Niger, Nigeria and Egypt pledged to make an all out assault to stop the spread of the disease. The World Health Organization says the goal should be reached by the end of the year.