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UN hails Nigerian resumption of polio vaccination as vital to eliminating the virus

UN hails Nigerian resumption of polio vaccination as vital to eliminating the virus

The crippling effects of polio
With sub-Saharan Africa on the verge of the largest polio epidemic in recent history, a United Nations-backed campaign to eradicate the virus today hailed resumption of immunization in the Nigerian State of Kano, seen as vital for eliminating the disease that once paralyzed hundreds of thousands of children worldwide each year.

Immunization campaigns were suspended in various northern states of Nigeria in August 2003 following concerns by public figures regarding the safety of oral polio vaccine (OPV), including rumours that it was contaminated by the HIV virus or that it could sterilize young girls. This led to the spread of the disease to other African countries, and Kano was the last to resume operations, with its four-day first round ending today.

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative - spearheaded by the UN World Health Organization (WHO), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Rotary International and the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - pledged its commitment to support Kano's state, traditional and religious leaders, as well as Nigeria's federal Ministry of Health, to ensure that Africa’s most populous country reaches its goal of stopping poliovirus transmission by the end of this year.

In February UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy called on the authorities to immediately re-join the eradication effort. “It is unforgivable to allow still more children to be paralyzed because of further delay and baseless rumours," she said, adding that denying vaccine to children in Kano had created a channel for the disease's spread. WHO reported that 10 previously polio-free African countries became re-infected due to spreading type 1 poliovirus from northern Nigeria.

The Global Initiative, which hopes to relegate the disease to history books by 2005, noted that Kano’s decision comes at a critical time in the eradication programme, with cases recorded in sub-Saharan Africa soaring to five times those for the same period in 2003, to 483 from 95.

Thirty of 37 states in Nigeria are infected and high quality campaigns across the country during National Immunization Days from September to November will be central to broader efforts to prevent the virus from spreading further. Key to success will be rebuilding community confidence in the safety of oral polio vaccine to ensure that all children are reached.

The poliovirus is now endemic in only six countries - Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Niger, Afghanistan and Egypt – down from over 125 when the Global Initiative was launched in 1988.