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25 September, Nairobi, Kenya - With only two cases of polio paralysis to date in 2002 in Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan, the Horn of Africa is extremely close to being polio-free. However to finish the job, the Horn countries must continue mass polio immunization campaigns and urgently require the funding to carry these out.
"Despite the enormous challenge of delivering polio vaccine to children in Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia, the people of these countries have almost wiped polio out of the Horn," said Dr Bruce Aylward, World Health Organization coordinator of the Polio Eradication Initiative, at a key meeting in Nairobi today. "By reducing polio cases to near-zero, the partnership has demonstrated that polio's days are numbered - even in countries where conflict has otherwise ravaged health systems."
The Polio Partners' Horn of Africa meeting included widespread representation from the spearheading polio partners (World Health Organization, Rotary International, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and UNICEF), Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia, nongovernmental organizations, and crucially, high-level representatives from donor countries.
Sudan possibly polio-free In 2000, Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia had a combined total of 327 confirmed polio cases. To date this year, only Somalia has cases, with just two. Sudan and Ethiopia have not found any cases in well over a year. To achieve this progress, polio partners including thousands of volunteers have worked under some of the harshest conditions possible, particularly in Sudan and Somalia where conflict has made the work especially challenging.
"To bring us this far, local vaccinators have often taken huge risks - literally dodging bullets - to get vaccine into the mouths of children. Directly due to their efforts, Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia, three of the ten remaining polio-endemic countries, are extremely close to being polio-free," said Urban Jonsson, UNICEF Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa. "Now the key is to make sure there are no new cases. This costs money."
In order to immunize 22 million children annually and conduct international-standard surveillance for polio in Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan, US$ 50 million are required from 2003-2005.
Donor Commitments Critical
As part of the New Partnership for African Development, G8 leaders announced at their June Summit in Kananaskis, Canada, the commitment to provide the funds to eradicate polio in Africa by 2005. Since then only two countries, the United Kingdom and Canada have pledged new money for polio eradication.
"We are grateful that Canada and the United Kingdom have offered new money. However, if we are to truly finish with polio in the Horn and in all of Africa, every G8 country must fulfil its commitment to polio eradication, and other countries must join them" said Dr John Sever, of the Rotary International PolioPlus committee. To date, Rotary International is one of the largest donors to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, having committed US$ 493 million, with more than US$ 500 million pledged by 2005.
Negotiating Access in Mogadishu
To ensure continued success in polio eradication, partners at the Horn of Africa meeting have drawn up a plan of action. Critical in the plan is access for international staff to the Mogadishu area, where the two cases of polio in 2002 have been found. Since April of 2001, international staff have not had any access to the area, and thus have not been able to help monitor polio immunization and surveillance activities.
"We are calling on the full strength of the UN system to help us get into Mogadishu. With widespread support, using all channels available to negotiate access to the city, we can be sure the polio eradication work is getting done, and we can be sure to eliminate polio from Somalia," said Dr Elias Durry, WHO Horn of Africa, Polio Eradication Coordinator.
A polio-free Horn of Africa is critical to securing polio-free status on the African continent, and a polio-free world. With continued high-quality immunization campaigns reaching every child under five, and international-standard surveillance, the WHO Eastern Mediterranean Region and the WHO African Region - the two Regions sharing countries on the African continent, can be in the process of polio-free certification in 2005.
"This virus will cross borders and paralyse children in countries which are currently polio-free, threatening our progress to date. Therefore the quality of polio eradication activities in the coming months is crucial to a polio-free Horn of Africa, the African continent, and a polio-free world," said Dr Steven Cochi, the Director of the Global Immunization Division at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "The polio eradication strategies work. But they can't work if there is no money to pay for them."
The global progress: The Global Polio Eradication Initiative has succeeded in reducing the number of polio endemic countries from 125 in 1988 to just 10 at the outset of 2002. The number of cases has declined dramatically, from 350,00 to just 483 in 2001 - a 99.8% reduction. The Horn of Africa is one of the remaining areas with poliovirus transmission. The others are: northern India, Nigeria/Niger, Pakistan/Afghanistan, Angola and Egypt.
The polio partners:
The Global Polio Eradication Initiative is spearheaded by the World Health Organization, Rotary International, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the United Nations Children's Fund.
The polio eradication coalition for the Horn of Africa also includes: the governments of countries affected by poliomyelitis; private foundations (e.g. United Nations Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation); development banks (e.g. World Bank); donor governments (e.g. Canada, Ireland, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, United Kingdom and United States of America); the European Commission; humanitarian and non-governmental organizations (e.g. the International Red Cross and Red Crescent societies); and corporate partners (e.g. Aventis Pasteur and Wyeth). Volunteers also play a key role by participating in mass immunization campaigns.
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