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Emergency Polio Immunization Campaign to be Launched in Somalia

The World Health Organization says it will launch a nationwide polio immunization campaign in Somalia to protect the country's children from the crippling disease. The 10-day campaign begins June 17.

Somalia is still polio-free. And, the World Health Organization says it is launching this emergency immunization campaign to try to make sure that the country remains free of this crippling disease. WHO says it aims to vaccinate all of Somalia's 1.2 million children under age five.

In August 2003, northern Nigeria stopped vaccinating its children against polio, claiming the virus was contaminated and caused infertility in girls. Since then, the virus has spread to 16 countries which had been free of polio. Many of these countries are neighbors of Somalia, including Ethiopia and Yemen.

The head of WHO's Global Polio Eradication Campaign, David Heymann, calls Somalia's campaign a preventative measure. He tells VOA it is important to boost children's immunity to polio to prevent the disease from once-again taking hold in that country.

"The reason polio was able to establish itself in neighboring countries, in Ethiopia and in Yemen, is because those two countries let their vaccination protection levels decrease, especially in young children," he said. "And, therefore, when imported polio arrived from Nigeria, it immediately set up a focus of transmission from person to person in those countries."

This Somali campaign has been preceded by two others in February and April. Dr. Heymann says further polio immunization campaigns will be held in July, August, and September to ensure all children receive enough doses of the polio vaccine to be adequately protected from the disease.

About 350,000 children were paralyzed by polio when the campaign to rid the world of this crippling disease began in 1988. This number has been reduced by 99 percent to 514 cases. While this is low, it is a significant rise when compared to this time last year when there were 268 reported cases. Most of the increases are due to re-infections in west and central Africa.

Dr. Heymann says polio is disappearing from Asia. And, he says he believes India, Pakistan and Afghanistan will be polio-free by the end of this year. However, he agrees that Africa might miss the 2005 target date for total eradication of the disease.

"We are very sad that this setback has occurred because this means that more children are being paralyzed throughout the world and our goal is to stop children from being paralyzed," he said. "The countries to which polio has spread recently, these 16 countries, have all interrupted their transmission before and there is no reason they cannot do it again. The important thing is that we continue to have the financial resources necessary for them to do the job. That means money in UNICEF for vaccines and money in WHO to support the technical activities that are necessary in countries."

Dr. Heymann says an urgent $50 million gap has to be filled to carry out polio immunization campaigns for the rest of this year. He says an additional $200 million is needed for 2006 activities.