The polio outbreak that originated in northern Nigeria after suspension there of immunization last year has now spread to 12 other countries, underscoring the threat of a major epidemic across West and Central Africa and the urgent need to fill a $100-million funding gap, the United Nations health agency warned 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 today confirmed fresh infections in Guinea and Mali as well as three new cases in the Darfur region of the Sudan.
The confirmation comes just two weeks after resumption of immunization in the northern Nigerian state of Kano, the last to do so, where concern among public figures over the vaccine’s safety, including rumours that it was contaminated by the HIV virus or could sterilize young girls, had prompted the suspension.
This halt led to the spread of the disease, which once paralyzed hundreds of thousands of children worldwide, to other previously virus-free countries and warnings that sub-Saharan Africa was on the verge of the largest polio epidemic in recent history.
The new cases were reported as preparations intensified for a series of synchronized mass polio immunization campaigns in 22 countries, drawn up by African Union health ministers for October and November in an effort to reach more than 74 million children under the age of five years.
The Global Polio Eradication Initiative warned, however, that these preparations and additional, synchronized rounds in 2005, were being seriously compromised by an ongoing funding shortfall of $100 million.
The Global Initiative hopes to relegate the disease to the history books by 2005. The poliovirus is now endemic in only six countries Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Niger, Afghanistan and Egypt – down from over 125 when the Initiative was launched in 1988.