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WHO Widens Polio Immunization Campaign in Africa - 2004-05-28

The World Health Organization is widening its polio immunization campaign to 21 African countries, after the virus began to spread from Nigeria to neighboring countries. WHO says the virus spread to 10 nations that had previously been polio free, after Nigeria decided to boycott the immunization campaign last year.

WHO spokeswoman Melissa Corkum said the immunization drive, which is part of the campaign to eradicate polio by 2005, will include more than 74 million children in Africa.

"Given the ongoing concern and the ongoing reinfection of countries surrounding Nigeria, [we] express the urgency of immunizing children in 21 countries," she said, "basically increasing the number of campaigns that will take place in and around Nigeria, to ensure that polio virus doesn't spread further to reinfect countries that are polio-free."

Northern states in Nigeria halted the immunization campaign late last year, claiming the vaccines supplied by the World Health Organization were contaminated. Muslim clerics in northern Kano state claimed the campaign was a western plot to spread infertility in women. WHO has denied the allegations.

But Kano state announced earlier this week it reached an agreement with the federal government to begin importing its own serum from Indonesia, and to resume the vaccination campaign.

Nigerian Minister of Health Eyitayo Lambo said Thursday he was confident that Nigeria was on course for eradicating polio, and that what he called "catch-up" campaigns in Kano would halt the transmission by the end of the year.

Ms. Corkum said the boycott caused the virus to spread to 10 countries, which had previously been polio-free. She said the disease reached as far as Botswana in southern Africa. "You can genetically sequence them back to exactly where they originate, so the Botswana case was from northern Nigeria," she explained.

With 119 cases reported, Nigeria has by far the world's highest number of polio victims. Niger is second with 12 cases.

The only disease that has been wiped out completely is smallpox.