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Egypt is now polio-free

© UNICEF/ HQ05-1593/ Pirozzi
Egypt’s children can now grow up without the fear of polio, as the country has been declared polio-free by UNICEF and its Global Polio Eradication Initiative partners.

By Simon Ingram

CAIRO, Egypt, 1 February 2006 – Polio and Egypt go back a long way. Archaeological evidence suggests that children living along the banks of the river Nile were being disabled by the disease even in pharaonic times. That’s one reason why today’s announcement – that Egypt has been declared polio-free – is such a landmark.

Only four countries in the world now have endemic polio: Nigeria, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The number of endemic countries is now at its lowest point in history – a major milestone on the road to global eradication of the virus.

The announcement by UNICEF and partners in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative comes just over 12 months after the last positive environmental sample of polio was collected in Egypt, in January 2005. The last reported case of polio in the country was in 2004.

When the global eradication effort began in 1988, Egypt was reporting several thousand cases every year. Today, Egypt is no longer a reservoir for the virus, thanks to years of hard work by tens of thousands of health workers and vaccinators. This achievement also marks the determination and commitment of a broad alliance of national and international partners.

© UNICEF/ HQ05-1593/ Pirozzi
A toddler receives oral polio vaccine at a UNICEF-supported health centre in Cairo. Thanks to the Government’s commitment and years of hard work by thousands of health workers and vaccinators, Egypt is now polio-free.

"Polio eradication has been a national endeavour in this country," said Erma Manoncourt, UNICEF Representative in Egypt. "Egypt has every reason to be proud of its contribution to the global campaign against this disease."

Years of effort to make Egypt polio-free

In order to eradicate polio, Egypt’s Ministry of Health and Population has carried out many immunization campaigns, implemented by teams that went door to door across the country. The campaigns sought to vaccinate every child aged five or under.

By the end of the 1980s the annual number of polio cases in the country had dwindled to a handful. But stubborn traces of the virus still lingered, especially in the big cities. In order to eradicate the disease entirely, the campaigns had to continue.

This meant that some 11 million children have had to receive vaccination drops several times a year, for many years. This has been a vast and costly undertaking. Egypt received technical and financial support from a variety of partners, including the World Health Organization, UNICEF, Rotary International, the US Agency for International Development and the Japanese government.

© UNICEF/HQ98-0412/ Goodsmith
Boys stand hand in hand during a game outside a UNICEF-assisted community school in Asyut, Egypt. The boy on the right survived a bout with polio, but the disease left him disabled.

The immunization effort also received political support at the highest level. National Immunization Days were launched under the auspices of Egypt's First Lady, Mrs. Suzanne Mubarak.

Other public figures played a part as well. Actor and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Mahmoud Kabil appeared in television ads, urging a sometimes sceptical public to give their children the protection they needed. Mohamed Mounir, one of Egypt's top singers, contributed a special song – ‘Ya A’lam Iss-ha’ (Wake Up World) – to raise awareness about the dangers of polio.

The adoption in 2005 of the latest generation of polio vaccines was an essential step to help eradicate the last traces of the virus in Egypt. UNICEF helped to supply ‘monovalent’ oral polio vaccine, which was designed to combat the last remaining strain of the virus, polio type 1.

No complacency

Despite the tremendous success, the authorities know there is no room for complacency. Recent experience in countries like Yemen and Indonesia has shown that polio can be re-imported into a country that was once polio-free.

Routine immunization will remain a national priority in Egypt, and polio drops will continue to be included in every child's vaccination schedule for a long time to come.

Kun Li and Eric Mullerbeck contributed to this story.




1 February 2006:
UNICEF’s Simon Ingram reports on the work to make Egypt polio-free.

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