With concern growing over the spread of polio in the Horn of Africa, the United Nations-backed Global Polio Eradication Initiative today announced an ambitious new immunization campaign aimed at reaching more than 34 million children and preventing the crippling disease from re-establishing itself in the region.
“With confirmation of polio in Mogadishu (the Somali capital), rapid implementation of the emergency measures are essential,” the UN World Health Organization (WHO) said in a news release, referring to the first case of the sometimes fatal and frequently paralyzing disease in a country that had been polio-free since 2002.
The campaign, made possible by a $25 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and support by other donors including the Humanitarian Aid Department of the European Commission (ECHO), will cover Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, and parts of Kenya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) between September and November.
The Global Initiative, spearheaded by WHO, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Rotary International and the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has voiced growing concern that outbreaks in Ethiopia and Yemen could spread across porous borders with Somalia.
Although five nationwide campaigns were conducted this year in Somalia, which has been plagued by conflict and factionalism since the 1991 collapse of the central government, insecurity and low routine immunization rates could still result in rapid spread of the virus, and the first phase of the plan will be launched on 28 September targeting 1.5 million children under the age of five, WHO said.
Global eradication efforts have reduced the number of polio cases from 350,000 annually in 1988 to 1,163 cases in 2005, as of 6 September. Six countries remain polio endemic – Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Niger and Egypt – but the virus continues to spread to previously polio-free countries.
The re-infections followed the 2003 suspension by several northern Nigerian states of immunization campaigns over concerns by public figures about the safety of the vaccine, including rumours that it was contaminated by the HIV virus or could sterilize young girls. The suspension was later lifted but not before the disease spread to other countries.
Nineteen countries have been re-infected with polio in the last 24 months, 17 of them with viruses originating in northern Nigeria, Global Polio Eradication Initiative Coordinator Bruce Aylward told a news briefing in Geneva. A small outbreak in Angola originated with a virus from India, and it was still not known where the virus from Somalia originated.