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WHO Declares Egypt Free of Indigenous Polio

The World Health Organization reports Egypt has eliminated indigenous polio and is no longer a source of transmission of the virus. The U.N. agency calls this a milestone and an important advance in the agency's campaign to wipe this crippling disease off the face of the Earth.

Polio had been present in Egypt for 5,000 years, and now the virus that has paralyzed countless thousands of children is gone from that country.

The Head of the WHO Polio Eradication Initiative, David Heymann, says Egypt and Niger have been completely free of the polio virus native to their countries for the last 12 months.

"Egypt has remained free because it is fairly isolated from other countries with polio being in the north of Africa where polio has been eliminated," he said. "But, Niger is just next to Nigeria and so periodically, they are still receiving imported cases of polio from Nigeria. But, this is not polio which had its origins in Niger."

Three northern Islamic States in Nigeria stopped immunizing their children against polio two years ago. They claimed the polio vaccine was contaminated and caused HIV/AIDS and infertility.

The wild virus traveled from Nigeria, re-infecting 18 countries, as far away as Indonesia and Yemen, that had been polio-free. Through mass immunization campaigns, most of these countries have managed to once-again free themselves of polio.

Dr. Heymann says religious and political leaders in northeastern Nigeria now are satisfied that the polio vaccine is safe and have been intensifying efforts to immunize children against the disease. But, he says problems remain.

"The rumors about the safety of polio vaccine are still circulating in northern Nigeria," Dr. Heymann said. "But, we now have the governors of northern Nigeria very engaged in helping their public understand that these vaccines have now been proven to be safe. Religious leaders are also working hard to convince their populations that the vaccine is safe and they are actually vaccinating in Koranic schools."

The World Health Organization reports 1,856 children were paralyzed by polio last year, nearly one half of them in Nigeria. Before the global polio eradication campaign began in 1988, 350,000 children a year became infected with the disease.

Dr. Heymann says other difficult areas where polio remains endemic include southern Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. He says all of these countries are making good progress in eliminating the virus.

As long as polio is present in any country in the world, he says no country is safe. He notes that Lebanon, Nepal and Angola all have been re-infected by a wild virus that traveled from India.

Dr. Heymann says the world is a step closer toward the goal of eradicating polio and he is optimistic that this will be achieved in the next two years.