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Global 'Hotspots' May Hinder Worldwide Effort to Eradicate Polio - 2002-04-16

The paralyzing disease, polio, is about to be eradicated worldwide. But experts say this major public health development is threatened by conflicts in a number of global hotspots.

When the World Health Organization, in cooperation with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, Rotary International and UNICEF, began its campaign to eradicate polio in 1988, an estimated 1,000 children were being diagnosed daily with the paralyzing illness.

According to the WHO, there were only 537 new cases of polio reported worldwide in all of 2001. An indication, say experts, that polio eradication efforts have driven the rates of new cases to their lowest point in history.

The WHO has set a deadline at the end of this year for stopping the transmission of polio.

U.N. Foundation chief Timothy Wirth is concerned that a number of global conflicts may get in the way of that important goal.

"The violence that occurs in a lot of the polio endemic areas provide real problems and real concern. Can the polio campaign be finished in time? Is there going to be interference from this increase in the armed and uncertain areas in which polio is found," Mr. Wirth said.

The three regions with the highest rates of poliovirus transmission are northern India, Afghanistan-Pakistan and Nigeria-Niger.

But these and other areas where endemic polio still exists are expected to take part in mass immunization campaigns in the next week or two, according to Ellen Ogden of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

"I personally have helped negotiate days of tranquility where warring factions have put down their weapons to allow vaccinators to access children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo," Ms. Ogden said. Polio would be the second disease to be eradicated by mankind. The first disease to be eliminated was smallpox. The last recorded case of the illness occurred in Somalia in 1977.