ACCRA/NEW YORK/GENEVA, 19 December 2003 – The alarming spread of polio in West Africa is now the biggest threat to global eradication of the disease, UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy told leaders of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) today.
Two West African countries - Nigeria and Niger - now account for almost half the world’s total polio caseload, according to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), a partnership including UNICEF, WHO, Rotary International and the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“This year, West Africans have put down their arms in Liberia and in Cote d’Ivoire, liberating millions of children from conflict,” said Bellamy, speaking at the ECOWAS Heads of State Summit in Accra. “Now children urgently need the same vision and decisiveness from their leaders to stop polio, before the disease spreads out of control in the region.”
Nigeria is at the root of the recent surge of polio across West Africa. With more cases of the disease than any other nation, Nigeria has been identified as the source of recent polio importations into Ghana (8), Burkina Faso (7), Chad (3), Togo (1). Responding to these importations cost the world over $20 million in 2003.
Much of this cost could have been avoided by improving countries’ routine immunization services, to protect children against polio and a whole host of other childhood disease, said Bellamy said.
“Too many children in West Africa are absolutely defenceless against preventable childhood disease, creating the perfect conditions for epidemics,” she said. “With polio in Nigeria on the rise and spreading, West African nations have to make routine immunization the backbone of their national polio defence. It’s a case of balancing an investment in child health against the cost of responding to polio importations.”
Bellamy presented a “four-point plan” to stop transmission of polio in West Africa by end-2004: eliminate the virus in the remaining reservoirs in Nigeria and Niger, immunize every child in West Africa with the polio vaccine during 2004 polio immunization campaigns, strengthen national routine immunization, and develop rapid-response plans to manage imported viruses.
To tackle polio and other major regional problems, Bellamy welcomed with “great optimism” the formal adoption of the ECOWAS Peer Review on the Situation of Children - a landmark initiative which provides a forum for West African leaders to evaluate how well each nation is meeting the needs of its young people.
This forum is so important, she stressed, because only through regional accountability for child welfare will West Africa make real progress on problems like polio eradication, child trafficking and HIV/AIDs, issues that transcend national borders. She encouraged Heads of State to use the Peer Review mechanism as a unique opportunity to broaden children’s participation in issues concerning their welfare.
“Children will tell us whether we are living up to our promises and making real improvements in their situation,” she said. “When their voices are heard, they can be true agents of change.”
For many children in West Africa, says Bellamy, the situation remains “desperate”. In 2003, approximately 46% of girls in West Africa were out of school, tens of thousands were trafficked across borders for labour and sexual exploitation and over 2.2 million were orphaned by the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
“When crises are on this scale, countries cannot tackle them alone; regions must face them together,” she said.
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