- Polio experts today issued a stark warning that West and Central Africa is on the brink of the largest polio epidemic in recent years. The warning follows confirmation today that a child was paralysed on 20 May by polio in the Darfur region of the Sudan, a country which had not seen the disease in more than three years. The virus is closely linked to the poliovirus of Northern Nigeria, which has spread through Chad in recent months and threatens to spoil the global drive to eradicate the disease.
Epidemiological data show that transmission of wild poliovirus continues to accelerate at an alarming rate in the region, according to the experts. In addition to the re-infection of the Sudan, five times as many children in West and Central Africa have been paralysed by polio so far in 2004, compared to the same period in 2003. 197 children have been paralysed in Nigeria, following the suspension of polio immunisation campaigns in by Northern Nigerian authorities late last year.
- There is no question that the virus is spreading at an alarming pace, said communicable disease expert Dr David Heymann, the World Health Organisation's (WHO) Representative for Polio Eradication. "The fact that the Sudan is now re-infected is concrete evidence of the need to support a massive immunisation response right across West and Central Africa," the polio expert added.
Mr Heymann stressed the re-infection of the Sudan is the latest setback to the strong progress Africa had achieved in eradicating polio. At the beginning of 2003, only two countries in sub-Saharan Africa - Nigeria and Niger - were polio-endemic. "Today, however, Africa accounts for nearly 90 percent of the global polio burden, with children now paralysed in ten previously polio-free countries across the continent."
Epidemiologists fear that a major epidemic this autumn - during the "polio high season" - would leave thousands of African children paralysed for life. Children are particularly vulnerable in West and Central African countries, surrounding Nigeria, as less than half of children in the region are routinely immunised against a series of diseases, including polio.
In response to this threat, the polio experts in a statement today recommended plans to hold massive, synchronised immunization campaigns across 22 African countries in October and November, aiming to reach 74 million children. "These campaigns could avert a public health tragedy," the statement says.
Recognising that the Northern Nigerian state of Kano remains the epicentre of the outbreak, federal and state authorities have been working to resolve a local controversy over the safety of the polio vaccine which had led to the suspension of campaigns in that area and the later spread of polio to ten African countries. In May 2004, Kano state authorities publicly announced to the world's press that polio immunisation activities in the state would soon be restarted.
- These campaigns could avert a public health tragedy, said Carol Bellamy, UNICEF Executive Director. "But to be effective they must have strong, grassroots support. The first priority should be to increase community participation in polio activities throughout the region. Many families still need reassurance, in the wake of rumours spreading out of Northern Nigeria, about the safety of the polio vaccine," Ms Bellamy added.
With a global investment of US$ 3 billion since 1988 for the eradication effort, responding to this looming epidemic will require an additional US$ 100 million, of which US$ 25 million was said to be "urgently required" by August for the first campaign.
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