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Central Africa May Soon Face Polio Epidemic


Polio: UN Health Experts Warn That West, Central Africa May Soon Face Epidemic

West and Central Africa could be facing its worst polio epidemic in years, with thousands of children at risk of paralysis, following confirmation that the recent outbreak has spread to the Darfur region of Sudan, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said today.

Health experts are calling for a massive immunization campaign across the region to halt the spread of a disease which has started advancing rapidly across Africa again after the continent had almost eradicated it.

“There is no question that the virus is spreading at an alarming pace,” Dr David Heymann, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Representative for Polio Eradication, said.

Only two countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Niger and Nigeria, were classed as polio-endemic at the start of last year; now children are paralyzed by the disease in 10 other countries as well.

In Darfur, a child was paralyzed on 20 May, the first confirmed case of polio in Sudan in more than three years. The virus in that case has been identified as closely linked to the virus which has spread through northern Nigeria and Chad recently.

Five times as many children in West and Central Africa have been paralyzed so far this year compared to the same period last year. The hardest hit is Nigeria, where 197 children have been paralyzed following the suspension of immunization in the north of the country late last year.

Epidemiologists from the Global Polio Eradication Initiative have recommended conducting a massive immunization campaign targeting 74 million children in 22 African countries in October and November.

The period has been chosen because autumn is considered the “high season” for polio transmission, when intensified rainfall helps create the conditions for spreading the disease.

Authorities in Nigeria’s Kano state announced last month that they would soon re-start immunization programmes, which were suspended last year in several northern Nigerian states after local religious and community leaders voiced concern about the safety of the oral vaccine. Kano is the only state that has not resumed vaccinations.

UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy said many families still needed reassurance about the safety of the polio vaccine as rumours continue to swirl around the region.

UNICEF said an extra $100 million is needed to respond to this imminent epidemic. Already $3 billion has spent worldwide since 1998 in an attempt to eradicate polio.

The rapid spread of polio in sub-Saharan Africa is occurring as WHO figures show that the other four of the world’s six polio-endemic countries – Afghanistan, Egypt, India and Pakistan – are on target to be polio-free by the end of the year.

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