- The World Health Organisation (WHO) today confirmed two new cases of poliovirus in Benin and Cameroon - countries where the disease had previously been eradicated.
- The spread of the virus across borders shows how fragile progress in its eradication is, the UN's health agency said, stressing the urgency of stopping transmission.
Neighbour countries Nigeria and Niger account for almost half the world's total remaining cases of polio, a disease WHO seeks to eradicate from Africa by 2005.
Vaccination in Northern Nigeria last year however experienced a blow after a shari'a court claimed the polio vaccine had been contaminated by the US government to spread AIDS among Muslim Nigerians. After Nigerian medical laboratories closely studied the vaccine, President Olusegun Obasanjo last week told Nigerians it was safe at that vaccination must continue.
WHO already in December found Nigeria to be at the root of the ongoing polio surge, which is threatening the WHO scheme to eradicate polio. The halt in vaccination of Northern Nigerian children was strongly criticised by the organisation, predicting this could lead to a new spread of polio to neighbour countries where the virus had already been eradicated.
According to the UN's Children's Fund (UNICEF), Nigeria has exported polio to at least six West African countries during the recent months. These included Ghana, Burkina Faso, Chad, and Togo in November and December 2003 and Benin and Cameroon this month.
Both Cameroonian and Beninese authorities now have to launch new anti-polio campaigns in order to prevent the imported cases from spreading further. These efforts may be costly, as they include the vaccination of entire new generations in the areas where the polio virus has entered or may enter.
But this is absolutely necessary, according to UNICF leader Carol Bellamy. "Too many children in West Africa are absolutely defenceless against preventable childhood disease, creating the perfect conditions for epidemics," she says. "With polio in Nigeria on the rise and spreading, West African nations have to make routine immunisation the backbone of their national polio defence."
In other development, health ministers from the six remaining polio-endemic countries will gather next week for an emergency meeting to address plans to immediately intensify efforts to stop poliovirus transmission globally by the end of 2004, the UN reported.
Also attending the 15 January event will be representatives from the WHO, Rotary International, the United States Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and UNICEF. They are all part of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, which brings together 20 million volunteers and an international investment of US$ 3 billion.
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