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Stakes remain high in drive to wipe out polio in Africa

23 countries race to halt the spread of the virus before the high-transmission season starts

DAKAR/NAIROBI, 8 April 2005 – With the polio virus’ high-transmission season just months away, African countries are redoubling their efforts this week to reach 100 million children in the second of a series of three immunization drives scheduled for 2005. This second round, from 9-12 April, aims to contain the epidemic before the virus begins to spread most rapidly in the July to September high season.

The stakes remain high across the continent. The Horn of Africa is under siege following the re-infection of Ethiopia in January by polio spreading from Sudan.  Ethiopia, polio-free since 2001, has just completed its first-round national immunization campaign.  It hopes to stop the spread of the virus within its own borders and safeguard vulnerable neighbours such as Somalia and Djibouti.

And in West Africa, Mali has become the sixth formerly polio-free country to have officially re-established polio transmission, while Nigeria has recorded a worrying 32 cases in the first three months of the year (half of all cases globally).

Despite the challenges, the UN agencies and Global Polio Eradication Initiative partners Rotary International and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are cautiously optimistic about the prospects for this round.

Early reports indicate that the first round of the year, from 25 February-1 March, reached as many as 95 million children. For the first time in many months, vaccination teams were able to reach children in some of the continent’s most troubled spots, such as Cote d’Ivoire and Sudan. With border territories, refugee camps and conflict zones among the areas at highest risk for transmission, as well as the hardest to access with vaccines, cooperation among governments has been crucial.

Still, significant gaps in coverage exist, in some areas as high as 20%, and the polio caseload remains high in the most affected areas.

“We’re determined to halt the transmission of polio in Africa in 2005,” says Dr. Ezio Murzi, UNICEF Regional Director for West and Central Africa. “But too many children are being missed. We need to make a final push to reach all children everywhere to slow the epidemic and stop the virus before the heat and the rains set in as of June.”

During a recent visit by the WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr. Luis Sambo, to the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, the President of the African Union Commission reaffirmed his strong commitment to a polio free Africa by the end of 2005. Moreover, Dr. Sambo has attended the flag-off ceremony of the second round of NIDs in Nigeria, led by the Federal Minister of Health and the Executive Governor of the Northern state of Zamfara.
"We should pull out all stops to ensure that all missed children are reached", says Dr. Sambo. "The prize is closer now than ever before. Together with partners, we are working to maintain momentum until the disease is finally gone”.

Africa accounts for 75% (48 of 64) of polio cases reported worldwide in 2005. The frontline of the virus on the continent has expanded, with polio spreading to 14 countries, in comparison with only 3 in 2002, and virus reported as far afield as Saudi Arabia.  In many countries, low childhood immunization rates compounded by civil unrest and population movement, has made stopping the virus hard.

“The triumph over polio worldwide depends on high quality campaigns that deliver the polio vaccine to each and every child, including the most vulnerable and hardest-to-reach children,” said Ambroise Tschimbalanga-Kasongo, African Regional PolioPlus Committee Chairman for Rotary International. “It is truly an inspiration to witness the commitment of the tens of thousands of health workers, volunteers and Rotary members who are going house-to-house and village-to-village, to hand-deliver the oral polio vaccine to every child.”

Health officials have reaffirmed that stopping polio across Africa in 2005 is feasible, just as similar campaigns from 2000-2002 stopped polio in all but three countries across the region (Nigeria, Niger and Egypt).

But funding is becoming a critical concern. To continue to finance the 2005 rounds, US $75 million is needed by July. A further US $200 million will be needed to support activities in 2006.

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 the 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, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, 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:

Thierry Delvigne-Jean, UNICEF West and Central Africa Office, Dakar, Tel: +221-869-5843, Mobile: +221-503-0845, tdelvignejean@unicef.org

Victor Chinyama, UNICEF Eastern and Southern Africa Office, Nairobi, Tel: +254-20-622218
Mobile: +254-722-701 505, vchinyama@unicef.org

Samuel Ajibola, WHO Regional Office for Africa,   Brazzaville, Congo.   Tel: + 47 241 39378; Mobile: +242 537 3353; ajibolas@afro.who.int

For further information on the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, please check:




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