Senior United Nations officials today condemned the detention in the Sudan of over a dozen health workers, calling the incident a "major setback" to the world body's effort to eradicate polio in the region.
While the 14 health workers participating in the UN's anti-polio drive were released following their arrest last month by members of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), three suffered assault, and all had their vaccination equipment and personal belongings looted, according to a joint statement released by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO).
"Threats to the security of humanitarian personnel are always of grave concern and the detention of health workers cannot be condoned under any circumstances," said Kenzo Oshima, the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator and head of OCHA. Echoing this view, UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy called on all parties "to respect and fulfil the commitments they have made to help create a polio-free world for our children."
The Sudan is only one of 10 countries where polio remains endemic, said WHO Director-General Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland. "The world can only be certified polio-free once transmission of wild poliovirus ends everywhere," she stressed. "For that to happen, all children under five must be vaccinated."
While last month's vaccination campaign in the Sudan aimed to reach all of the country's children, the detention of health workers, coupled with an impasse among the warring parties over access to the Nuba Mountains and the Blue Nile state, disrupted the campaign, the agencies said.