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WHO:  Africa on Brink of Polio Epidemic - 2004-06-22

World Health Organization polio experts warn 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 by polio in the Darfur region of the Sudan.

The World Health Organization says polio is spreading at an alarming pace through west and central Africa. And this, it warns, is putting 74 million children at risk of getting this crippling disease.

At the beginning of 2003, only two countries in sub-Saharan Africa reported cases of polio. Now, dozens of children in 10 previously polio-free countries across the continent are paralyzed from polio.

The WHO says the virus is moving from Nigeria to other African countries. It blames this on the northern Islamic state of Kano, which last year stopped immunizing its children against polio. Religious and political leaders in Kano charged that the polio vaccine was contaminated with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS and could also lead to infertility in women.

The Global Coordinator of the WHO Polio Eradication Initiative, Bruce Aylward, says the virus now has spread as far east as Sudan and as far south as Botswana. On Monday, WHO confirmed 60 new cases of polio in Nigeria, bringing the total number of cases there to 257. He calls this the largest number of cases reported in a single week from any country in many years.

"What all that adds up to is a virus and an epidemic that is gathering speed, rather than slowing down at the end of the low season," he said. "And what is most alarming now is we could see ? thousands of children paralyzed across west and central Africa at a time when this disease should be eradicated."

WHO experts are particularly worried that polio has spread into Darfur in western Sudan, where more than one million people have been made homeless by war.

WHO Executive Director David Nabarro spoke on the phone from Darfur.

"The news that there is polio just a few kilometers away from where I am standing is causing us all major concern ?," he said. "And it is quite clear from just looking at the people and talking to them as I have been all day, that the last thing these people need now is to be facing an outbreak of polio on top of all the other ravages they are facing which is truly awful."

Dr. Nabarro says the World Health Organization, along with other U.N. and private agencies, will work together to increase the rate of polio immunization in Darfur.

Nine out of 10 polio cases in the world are in Africa and the remaining cases are reported from India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Egypt.

WHO says it will need an additional $100 million for an immunization campaign in 22 African countries in October and November.