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WHO Says 2005 Polio Eradication Goal May Be Missed

The World Health Organization acknowledges it might not achieve its goal of eradicating polio around the world by the end of this year. The agency says the Horn of Africa is among its greatest concerns because polio has spread to Eritrea and fears are growing that the disease might re-invade war-torn Somalia.

The World Health Organization's global polio eradication campaign is not going as well as it had hoped. Latest WHO figures show that more than 1,000 children have been paralyzed with polio since the beginning of 2005. This is double the number of children who were paralyzed by the disease during the same period last year.

WHO's special representative for polio, David Heymann, says there is particular concern about the spread of polio to other countries from the Horn of Africa. He tells VOA that Ethiopia is making progress in containing an outbreak of polio. At the same time, he says the virus continues to cross borders and it now has spread to Eritrea.

"What we are hoping is that the virus will not spread into Somalia where there are some difficult situations in detecting new cases of polio and to other countries in the region," said Mr. Heymann. "Sudan, for example, has already spread the virus across the Red Sea. What we would not like to see is that Ethiopia, then, at the same time passes the virus on to Somalia, which in turn would pass the virus across the Red Sea."

The World Health Organization blames its current problems on Nigeria. Two years ago, several Muslim States in Northern Nigeria stopped vaccinating their children claiming the polio vaccine was contaminated. After that, a number of African countries that had been polio-free became re-infected with the virus that traveled from Nigeria.

WHO reports polio exists in 24 countries. Eighteen are African countries that had been polio-free. Seventeen got re-infected from Nigeria. The only exception, it says, is Angola that received the virus from India.

Dr. Heymann says WHO is very concerned that polio could spread from Angola to the Democratic Republic of Congo. He says measures are being taken with both governments to make sure they coordinate their polio immunization campaigns along their shared border. He acknowledges there is a risk that the December 2005 target date for eradicating polio might be missed. But, he says WHO and its partners are not giving up on ridding the world of this scourge.

"If we miss the goal this year, we will continue to work and make that goal happen sometime next year. We will not give up on this job. There has been too much invested both financially," added Mr. Heymann. "We still have our partner confidence. We still have confidence in our own activities and we have new tools. These monovalent vaccines, which we believe will be more effective. So, we are very optimistic that we will interrupt polio transmission. Eradication is possible. And we will just wait until our October advisory group meeting to confirm what we believe."

A committee of experts that advises the polio eradication program will meet October 10 to review the worldwide polio situation. The Committee will decide whether any modifications need to be made.