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Africa: Coast-to-coast polio drive to end epidemic

Coast-to-coast polio drive to counter epidemic in Africa

22-nation synchronized immunization campaign to reach 100 million children as virus spreads to Ethiopia

DAKAR/HARARE/GENEVA/EVANSTON – A mass polio immunization drive starting today across Africa gained greater urgency from reports that a child has contracted polio in Ethiopia, the first case there in four years.

The cross-continental drive – spanning 22 countries and reaching 100 million children – is the first in a series of 2005 campaigns to stamp out polio in Africa, which saw a fierce resurgence last year endangering global eradication efforts. With polio now in its low-transmission season, the next few months are critical to stopping the virus.

Countries joining the campaigns this round include the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia and Eritrea on the southern and eastern edges of the epidemic. In the west, Côte d’Ivoire is rejoining the effort for the first time since civil unrest halted activities last November, causing months of concern after the country was re-infected early on in the regional epidemic.

“By reaching children cut off from the eradication effort by insecurity and the threat of violence African leaders have a real opportunity to halt polio’s advance,” said Dr. Ezio Murzi, UNICEF Regional Director for West and Central Africa.

On the other side of the continent, Sudanese health officials in the wake of the Nairobi peace accord are cooperating to immunize children in both the north and south. Next door, Ethiopia is concentrating on activities along its northern and western borders, where the new case was found. Sudan convened earlier this month nine neighbouring countries to discuss cross-border immunization coordination.

In a reminder of the ease with which the virus travels, two recent cases in Saudi Arabia appear to be related to virus originating in Nigeria and entering via Sudan. Nigeria accounts for over 60% of cases worldwide.

“Eradication in Africa requires not only reaching all children in the newly-infected areas, but most importantly immunizing every child in those countries which have never interrupted transmission - Nigeria and Niger," said WHO Regional Director for Africa Dr. Luis Sambo. "It is gratifying to note that both countries are fully committed to the polio eradication drive."

Health officials say that progress made since the first response to the outbreak in Africa – massive co-ordinated immunization campaigns in October and November 2004 – has been positive but fragile. Success in the second phase of this intensified eradication effort, coupled with improved access to routine immunization, is critical to stopping the epidemic. To finance the 2005 immunization rounds, US $75 million is needed by July; some $200 million will be required in 2006.

African leaders have re-doubled their commitment in the face of the epidemic, as evidenced in recent declarations at the African Union summit by the AU's top leadership. “Polio eradication has the unswerving commitment of all Africans – from leaders to parents and children themselves,” said Marie-Irene Richmond-Ahoua, Rotary’s National PolioPlus Chair for C#te d’Ivoire. Since 1985, Rotary members have contributed countless volunteer hours and more than US$500 million to the polio eradication effort

Vaccinators will be delivering vitamin A drops with the polio vaccine in many places – an immunity-boosting strategy that has saved an estimated 1.2 million lives over 12 years. Further mass polio vaccination campaigns in Africa are scheduled for April and May and again late in the year.

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