Polio epidemic across west and central Africa halted by massive campaign – UN

11 November 2005
Children being immunized against polio

A polio epidemic across 10 west and central African countries, which paralyzed nearly 200 children since 2003, has been stopped thanks to a massive international effort reaching nearly 100 million children under the auspices the African Union (AU), according to a joint announcement by United Nations agencies today.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said that the drive has worked in Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Mali and Togo, with an infusion of $135 million in emergency funding from the European Commission (EC), Canada and Sweden.

“The reversal of these epidemics is precisely what EC development objectives are all about,” said Louis Michel European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid. “Such a rapid return on development investment is good for Africa, good for donors, and most importantly, good for the children of Africa.”

No new cases have been reported in the 10 countries, which had previously been polio-free, since early June. At the same time, polio eradication efforts are intensifying in Nigeria, where there is still the danger of transmission, the agencies said.

The number of polio cases in Africa doubled after some groups in northern Nigeria claimed in August 2003 that the vaccine being used would render girls infertile. They were eventually persuaded to accept an inoculation against the disease.

The new Nigerian effort is part of a “maintenance” immunization campaign across 28 African countries beginning today, planning to vaccinate another 100 million children in November and December. Overall, the strategy aims to protect the $4 billion invested globally since the 1988 launch of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.

A key to success in that effort, said the agencies, is ensuring the necessary funds continue to be made available. A $200 million funding gap for 2006 must urgently be filled, $75 million of which is needed by December, to ensure activities in the first quarter of next year can proceed.

Since 1988, global eradication efforts have reduced the number of polio cases by more than 99 per cent, from 350,000 annually to 1,469 cases in 2005 (as of 1 November). Six countries remain polio endemic (Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Niger and Egypt).

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative is spearheaded by national governments, Rotary International, the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), WHO and UNICEF, with a coalition that includes NGOs, corporations, foundations and development banks.

In a related story, WHO announced today that progress has been made in ensuring the safety of immunization delivery methods over the past five years for all national vaccination programs, although many challenges remain.

The WHO Steering Committee on Immunization Safety, which published the results of its sixth meeting today, said that the use of syringes that were automatically disabled after one use, better methods of dealing with immunization-related waste and progress in national regulatory authorities accounted for the improvements.


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