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WHO on Track to Eradicate Polio by End of 2006

The World Health Organization (WHO) acknowledges that it has missed its deadline for eradicating polio around the world by the end of 2005. But, the U.N. health agency says it is on course for ridding the world from this crippling disease by the end of this year.

The World Health Organization says new, simpler vaccines are making polio immunization campaigns more effective, and says this will help it and its partners to recoup its losses and reach its goal of eradicating polio from the earth.

The head of the WHO Polio Eradication Initiative, David Heymann, says the campaign received a serious setback in 2003 when several Islamic States in northern Nigeria stopped immunizing their children against polio.

Nigeria claimed the oral vaccine caused sterility and was part of a Western campaign against Muslims. As a result, the virus spread freely across borders as far away as Yemen and Indonesia, re-infecting 18 countries that had been free of polio.

But Dr. Heymann notes, Nigerian politicians and clerics now support polio vaccination. And, intensive immunization campaigns have resumed. He says this has given rise to renewed optimism that the battle against this paralytic disease can be won.

"The greatest risk to polio eradication today is our funding gap for next year which is $200 million," said Dr. Heymann. "We have new vaccines. We believe it is feasible to interrupt polio transmission in each country. That is to stop the transmission of the polio virus by mid-year for all countries except Nigeria and by the end of 2006 or early 2007 for Nigeria. It would be a shame if we would fail because of lack of resources."

When the World Health Organization began its global polio eradication campaign in 1988, about 350,000 children were paralyzed every year. That number has dropped to just more than 1,700 cases. The U.N. agency says more than one-third of these cases are found in Nigeria.

Last year, the World Health Organization launched a series of synchronized immunization campaigns in 28 West and Central African countries, including those that had been re-infected with the wild polio virus from Nigeria. Thanks to these campaigns, a polio epidemic across 10 of these countries has been stopped.

Only five polio-endemic countries remain; Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Niger, and Afghanistan. Dr. Heymann says progress is being made in reducing polio cases in all these countries.

He says polio eradication efforts must be intensified and mass vaccination campaigns will go-ahead in January and February, if funding is available.