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WHO Launches Polio Immunization In 23 African Countries  - 2004-10-08


The World Health Organization, UNICEF and other partners are launching a large-scale polio immunization campaign in 23 African countries.

The World Health Organization says it hopes this synchronized campaign will get the polio eradication effort back on track. The campaign suffered a major setback last year, when three Islamic states in northern Nigeria suspended polio vaccinations, claiming the vaccine was unsafe and caused infertility in girls.

The Head of WHO's Polio Eradication Campaign, David Heymann, says, when the Nigerian states stopped immunizations, all African countries, with the exception of Niger and Nigeria were polio-free.

He says now 12 African countries have been re-infected with this crippling disease. However, he adds, he believes the synchronized polio immunization campaign, which is now under way in 23 African countries will repair the damage.

"So, today, we are very optimistic that Africa is showing the world that Africa can have a success. It will have a success in polio eradication, and they will catch up with the rest of the world," said Mr. Heymann. "And, we believe that, if political commitment and technical activities in polio eradication reach the quality that they must reach in Africa, and continue with high quality in Asia, the world will become polio-free next year."

When the global polio campaign kicked off in 1988, 125 countries had infections, and about 1,000 children became paralyzed each day. Today, the global total is 786 cases in children in six countries. Nearly 90 percent of these cases are in sub-Saharan Africa.

WHO says more than one-million polio vaccinators in the 23 African countries are going villlage-to-village and house-to-house to hand-deliver the vaccine to every child under the age of five. UNICEF representative in West and Central Africa Rima Salah says all means are being used to reach the children.

"We are using helicopters in Sierra Leone. I just came back from Sierra Leone yesterday to access all regions in those countries," she said. "We are also using camels in desert countries, such as for example, Mauritania. And, also, in countries on the coast, we are using boats."

WHO says Asia, which is on track to eradicate polio by the end of 2005, also is holding a mass immunization campaign. It says, over the next few days, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan plan to immunize 170-million children against polio.

About $3 billion has been spent on polio eradication since 1988. International campaigners say they need an additional $200 million to finish the job by the end of next year. If the disease does not reappear for three years, the world will be declared polio-free.