New York, 1 April, 2002 - The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have condemned the recent detention of fourteen health workers in Sudan, saying the incident represents a major setback to the polio eradication effort in Sudan and other countries affected by conflict.
The health workers were conducting vaccination activities in southern Sudan, as part of the global effort to eradicate polio, when they were arrested in Nyingol near Malakal Town on 15 March by members of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). Three of the vaccinators were assaulted, including a female worker who was badly beaten. All of their vaccination equipment and personal effects were looted. The detained health workers were all released on 23 March.
"Threats to the security of humanitarian personnel are always of grave concern and the detention of health workers cannot be condoned under any circumstances," said Kenzo Oshima, the United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator.
The March 2002 nationwide vaccination campaign in Sudan would have been the first time, since the polio eradication effort started there in 1994, that polio vaccines would have reached all children throughout the country within a period of several days. Most regrettably, the detention of the health workers and an impasse among the warring parties over access to the Nuba Mountains and the Blue Nile State disrupted the campaign, unnecessarily exposing children to the risk of infection with the polio virus which can cause paralysis and even death.
Because of the tireless work of thousands of vaccinators in Sudan the country is now on the brink of eliminating polio. However, access to all children -- even in the most remote areas -- and the security of health workers will be critical to the next round of 'National Immunization Days', scheduled for mid-April. Without this access and safe passage for health workers the campaign will not succeed. The UN agencies urged all parties to allow unhindered access and to observe "Days of Tranquility" during 13 - 26 April 2002.
"The goal of eradicating polio is in sight, but it can only be achieved with unhindered access to all children," said Carol Bellamy, Executive Director of UNICEF. "We call on all parties to respect and fulfil the commitments they have made to help create a polio-free world for our children."
"As one of just 10 remaining polio-endemic countries, Sudan is absolutely critical to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative," said Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, Director-General of the World Health Organization. "The world can only be certified polio-free once transmission of wild poliovirus ends everywhere. For that to happen, all children under five must be vaccinated."
Since 1988, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative has reduced the global incidence of the disease by over 99% - from an estimated 350,000 cases to less than 1,000 in 2001. Today the wild poliovirus is circulating in only 10 countries - drastically reduced from 125 countries in 1988. The goal is to certify the world polio-free in 2005.
The Global Polio Eradication Initiative is spearheaded by World Health Organization, Rotary International, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).
Please see www.polioeradication.org for weekly updates of polio cases worldwide.
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