Global health officials say war-torn Sudan is one of three sub-Saharan African countries reporting new cases of polio. The new polio virus is believed to the same strain registered in a major outbreak in northern Nigeria.
Health officials fear that more than one million displaced persons, victims of what the United Nations calls "the worst humanitarian disaster in the world" in the Darfur region of western Sudan, could now be caught up in a polio epidemic spreading across west and central Africa.
A total of five new cases of polio have been identified in Darfur. Four cases are the same strain that caused a polio outbreak in Nigeria last year.
A health official with the Khartoum office of the United Nations' children's agency, UNICEF, Roberto De Bernardi, says he fears polio could spread quickly in Darfur, as the camps there provide an ideal breeding ground for diseases.
"In the camps of Darfur, because of the situation of sanitation and water supply, and overcrowding, etc., there is a potential for any outbreak which is water-borne linked to the four Fs: food; finger; feces; and flies," Mr. De Bernardi explained.
UNICEF is now completing a polio vaccination campaign across Darfur. Mr. De Bernardi says one million children under five have been immunized against the crippling disease.
The Global Polio Eradication Initiative, including UNICEF and the World Health Organization, says two other sub-Saharan African countries, Guinea and Mali, have reported new polio cases in recent months.
Since January 2003, new cases of polio have spread to a dozen sub-Saharan African countries that had been previously free of the disease. Altogether, there are 541 polio cases in the 12 countries.
The World Health Organization points to Kano state in Nigeria as being the key source of the current outbreak.
Polio vaccinations were temporarily suspended one year ago after rumors spread of a plot that polio vaccinations were being used to spread AIDS and infertility among the local population.
Earlier this year, several West African countries conducted mass immunization campaigns, and three weeks ago Nigeria resumed its polio vaccination campaign.
A spokeswoman for the World Health Organization, Melissa Corkum, says later this year, health ministers of 22 African countries will launch a synchronized campaign, aimed at providing polio vaccinations to 74 million children under five-years-old.
"It's critical to boost population immunity to ensure that children in this region are protected against polio in the presence of polio transmission," Ms. Corkum said. "It's critical that during those upcoming campaigns that all children are reached to protect them against polio so that it doesn't spread even further."
Polio is a highly infectious disease that invades the nervous system. Total paralysis can come in a matter of hours. It can strike at any age, but affects mainly children under three years of age.