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Africa responds to close down polio epidemic

As polio reaches as far as Indonesia, over 77 million children to be immunized at heart of outbreak to prevent further spread

DAKAR/NAIROBI/HARARE, 13 May 2005 – Africa is responding aggressively to close down a polio epidemic that has spread the virus as far as Indonesia in recent weeks. Countries across the west and central belt and the Horn of Africa are participating in the third in a series of pan-continental immunization drives this year to immunize all children against the virus.

The campaigns hope to reach over 77 million children, in one of the largest public health exercises ever undertaken on the continent. 

The stakes are very high.  The ongoing polio epidemic that emerged in West Africa last year has so far spread the virus to 16 polio-free countries and re-established transmission in six. Polio has crossed the Red Sea into Saudi Arabia and Yemen and hopped across continents to Indonesia, which had been polio free for a decade. Stopping the virus in Africa, particularly in Nigeria and Niger, is critical to protect children across the region and in polio-free countries around the world.

African governments continue concerted and intensified efforts to stop the epidemic, supported by the global polio partners – the World Health Organization, Rotary International, the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and UNICEF.

Earlier this year the region aimed to immunize more than 100 million children through two coast-to-coast anti-polio drives.  Health officials say positive results are beginning to show. Case numbers are falling across the region.  None of the countries where polio transmission was re-established last year have reported cases this year.

Even Nigeria, the largest reservoir of poliovirus on the African continent, has seen a sharp reduction of cases (77 children) compared to the same period last year (119). Independent monitoring shows that the percentage of children missed during vaccination rounds have dropped to a nationwide average of 11%, the lowest-ever.

But polio-free parts of Africa are still under siege, particularly where there are weak health and immunization services and large groups of un-immunized children. The Horn of Africa is particularly vulnerable, with its low rates of routine immunization and pockets of civil unrest.  Countries such as Somalia and Ethiopia – which already has 5 cases – are on the borders of the epidemic. Re-infection of these countries would place serious logistical and financial burdens on the global eradication initiative, and protecting them is a major priority during these coming rounds.

To finance campaigns for the rest of the year, US $50 million is needed by July; some $200 million will be required in 2006 to maintain the population's immunity. Previous campaigns, repeated and synchronized, stopped polio in all but three African countries.

Vaccinators will be delivering vitamin A drops with the polio vaccine in many places – an immunity-boosting strategy that has saved an estimated 1.2 million lives over 12 years. Finances allowing, further mass polio vaccination campaigns in Africa are scheduled throughout the year. A review of progress is scheduled for August, after the "high season" of polio transmission starts to wane and data is available.

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Notes to editors: The Global Polio Eradication Initiative is spearheaded by the World Health Organization, Rotary International, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and UNICEF.

The poliovirus is now endemic in 6 countries – Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Niger, Afghanistan and Egypt – down from over 125 when the Global Polio Eradication Initiative was launched in 1988. Polio is spread by faecal-oral contact and can be prevented by an oral vaccine.

The polio eradication coalition includes governments of countries affected by polio; private sector foundations (e.g. United Nations Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation); development banks (e.g. the World Bank); donor governments (e.g. Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Oman, Portugal, Qatar, the Russian Federation, Spain, Sweden, United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States of America); the European Commission; humanitarian and nongovernmental organizations (e.g. the International Red Cross and Red Crescent societies) and corporate partners (e.g. Sanofi Pasteur, De Beers, Wyeth). Volunteers in developing countries also play a key role; 20 million have participated in mass immunization campaigns.


For further information, please contact :
Oliver Rosenbauer  WHO/Geneva, tel. +41 22 791 3832, rosenbauero@who.int  

Vivian Fiore, Rotary Int'l/Chicago, tel. +1 847 866 3234, fiorev@rotaryintl.org 

Steve Stewart, CDC/Atlanta, tel. +1 404 639 8327, znc4@cdc.gov 

Claire Hajaj, UNICEF/New York, +1 212 326-7566, chajaj@unicef.org

For further information on Global Polio Eradication Initiative please check: http://www.polioeradication.org/ 

 


 

 

 

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