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West African States On Verge of Eliminating Polio As Massive Immunization Campaign Launched

80 million African children to be protected

Geneva, Lungi, New York - With polio cases at an all-time low in West Africa, 16 countries are renewing their commitment to eliminate the crippling virus as they launch a massive coordinated campaign aimed at reaching 80 million children with oral polio vaccine.

Coordinated or "synchronized" polio National Immunization Days (NIDs) from 19-26 October across West Africa will involve tens of thousands of volunteers and health workers fanning across the region to find and immunize every child under five. Renewed stability in the region will allow immunization teams to access children in previously unreachable areas in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea (Conakry).

At the launch of the coordinated effort in Lungi, Sierra Leone, President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria said, "If we eliminate polio in Sierra Leone but we don't in Nigeria we are not safe. If we eliminate polio in Mali but we don't in Burkina Faso we are not safe. That is why all of West Africa must work together to eradicate this disease."

Leaders from Sierra Leone, Mali, Nigeria and high level representatives from the Revolutionary United Front Party (RUFP), the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), Rotary International and other polio partners gathered in Lungi to launch this synchronized polio immunization campaign. Following Muslim and Christian prayers, leaders committed their support to polio's eradication, and administered the first drops of vaccine to babies.

On behalf of the members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), President Obasanjo, President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah of Sierra Leone and President Alpha Oumar Konare, President of Mali and also Chairman of ECOWAS, signed the "Lungi Declaration", a document which commits the countries to eliminating polio from their region, contributing to the global effort to eradicate the wild poliovirus and certify the world polio-free by the end of 2005.

Appealing for the silencing of weapons so that peace can be reinstated in Sierra Leone and across the region, President Konare said, "We need to take action so that the entire subregion can make the national anti-polio immunization campaigns not only a success, but above all a lever for peace and a strategy for immunizing children in real need."

"The composition of this gathering here in Lungi underscores the importance of partnership and co-operation at all levels to achieve the objectives of the NIDs for the well-being of our children," said President Kabbah.

In order to reach all children, teams of health workers and volunteers have created exhaustive maps detailing every village, no matter how small. Immunization teams will go house-to-house, travel through refugee camps, paddle pirogues to tiny islands, set up special immunization posts at every border point and in market squares to ensure every child is immunized. Where access is difficult, teams from one country may cross into the neighbouring country to immunize children. For example, immunization teams from Sierra Leone will help to vaccinate children in cross-border villages in Guinea.

"We know this approach is effective," said Dr Ebrahim Samba, Director of the WHO Regional Office for Africa. "Over the last 12 months alone, our combined efforts have resulted in a dramatic reduction of new polio cases. By synchronizing National Immunization Days, we are stopping the poliovirus in its tracks, and we are proving that together, we can achieve this major milestone in global public health."

In the region to date in 2001, only Nigeria, Niger and Mauritania have reported polio cases, for a total of 20 cases, reduced from a total of 1199 reported in 1999. Nigeria is considered one of five remaining wild poliovirus reservoirs and so long as it is polio-endemic, there is a risk of importation of wild poliovirus to neighbouring countries.

"Victory of total eradication of polio is at hand," said Dr Rimah Salah, the Regional Director for UNICEF West and Central Africa, "We are on the verge of eradicating this debilitating disease. However, the time ahead is critical and we have to be extremely vigilant to ensure that all children are immunized and the last case of polio is recorded once and for all."

The poliovirus does not respect national boundaries. In any region where conflict, the labour situation and natural disasters cause frequent movement of populations, the synchronization of NIDs in an entire geographical area is essential to interrupt polio transmission.

A synchronized effort in Central Africa involving Angola, Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Gabon ensured 16 million children under five were immunized during three rounds of synchronized NIDs earlier this year. Afghanistan and Pakistan have adopted the same approach by synchronizing their polio eradication activities at all key border crossings, especially important during the last round of NIDs in September.

The 16 participating countries in West Africa are Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Côte d'Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea (Conakry), Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania (second round only), Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo. The first round from 19-26 October will be followed by a second round from 22-26 November. Nigeria will undertake subnational immunization days in October followed by full NID rounds in November 2001 and January 2002.

Continuing contributions from Rotary International will be key to the success of polio eradication efforts. In West Africa, Rotary volunteers will work with Ministries of Health and other partners to ensure vaccine distribution, cold chain supplies and other logistics, along with the immunization of children.

"You can be sure that as long as polio is paralysing children, Rotary International will be relentless in its pursuit to stop this virus. Rotary volunteers are committed to a polio-free Africa, and a polio-free world," said Sam Okudzeto, a member of Rotary's African Regional PolioPlus Committee. To date, Rotary International has contributed

US$ 438 million to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, and will have given half a billion US dollars by 2005.

Once the wild poliovirus is eradicated, certification-standard surveillance for the disease must continue. The United States' Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has played a leading role in training staff and implementing polio surveillance activities in polio endemic and high-risk countries.

At the end of 2000, the poliovirus was circulating in only 20 countries in the world, reduced from 125 when the Global Polio Eradication Initiative was launched in 1988. To date in 2001, indigenous wild poliovirus has been virologically confirmed in just 10 countries. Along with West, Central and the Horn of Africa, the virus continues to circulate in Afghanistan, India and Pakistan. The global caseload was reduced by 99% between 1988 and 2000, from an estimated 350 000 cases, to 2882 reported last year.

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative is spearheaded by WHO, Rotary International, CDC and UNICEF.

The polio eradication coalition also includes governments of countries affected by polio; private foundations (e.g. United Nations Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation); development banks (e.g. World Bank); donor governments (e.g. Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, United Kingdom and United States of America); the European Commission; humanitarian organizations (e.g. the International Red Cross and Red Crescent movement) and corporate partners (e.g. Aventis Pasteur, De Beers). Volunteers in developing countries also play a key role; 10 million have participated in mass immunization campaigns.

For further information, contact:

Mohammad Jalloh, UNICEF, New York, tel. (+1 212) 326 7516, mjalloh@unicef.org

Paryss Kouta, UNICEF Camp/Freetown, Telephone: (232 22) 241422, Email: pkouta@unicef.org

Christine McNab, WHO, Geneva, tel. (+41 22) 791 4688, mobile (41) 79 254 6815, mcnabc@who.int;

Vivian Fiore, Rotary International, Chicago, tel. (+1 847) 866 3234, fiorev@rotaryintl.org;

Steve Stewart, CDC, Atlanta, tel. (+1 404) 639 8327, znc4@cdc.gov;


Global Polio Eradication Initiative Information:
See www.polioeradication.org,
Rotary International's PolioPlus site at http://www.rotary.org,