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On World Polio Day, UN urges redoubled efforts to eradicate disease ‘once and for all’

Oral poliovirus vaccine.
Oral poliovirus vaccine.

On World Polio Day, UN urges redoubled efforts to eradicate disease ‘once and for all’

The world is closer than ever to eradicating polio, the United Nations World Health Organization said today while warning that children continue to be at risk, particularly in the Horn of Africa where a tapering outbreak has been confirmed, and amid reports of suspected cases in Syria.

“This is no time for complacency, and efforts must be redoubled to ensure this disease is eradicated once and for all. World Polio Day marks the perfect opportunity to remind us of this fact,” the UN World Health Organization (WHO) said in its message for the Day.

World Polio Day is observed annually on 24 October, which marks the birth of United States virologist, Jonas Salk, who was the leader of the team that invented a polio vaccine in 1955.

In Sudan, the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator, Ali Al-Za’tari, today welcomed official confirmation that the Government there agreed to a polio vaccination campaign in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states, areas controlled by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM-N) and cut off since the military conflict began in 2011.

Earlier this month, the UN Security Council called on the Government to start the campaign, alarmed by the “grave concern” at the imminent threat of the spread of polio in Sudan’s South Kordofan province and the continuing outbreak.

“Sudan’s future lies in the health of its children. This is an opportunity for all parties to put children’s health before politics and ensure that this campaign goes ahead without delay,” Mr. Al-Za’tari said.

The two-week campaign is due to be carried out starting on 5 November by WHO, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and partners, which have put in place plans to vaccinate children under the age of five in these areas.

Actress and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Mia Farrow, who had a close encounter with the debilitating disease, knows its terrifying consequences all too well.

“I had polio as a child. I was one of the lucky ones to escape without any permanent effect. But, at 9, it was my introduction in the world of fear and a world of suffering and death,” she said.

In addition, one of Ms. Farrow’s sons, adopted from India, is paraplegic, as a result of polio.

“It’s time. Its past time for polio to be finished,” Ms. Farrow said marking the Day.

Polio, whose virus enters the body through the mouth and multiplies in the intestine attacking the nervous system, is highly infectious and can cause total paralysis in a matter of hours.

Initial symptoms are fever, fatigue, headache, vomiting, and stiffness in the neck and pain in the limbs. One in 200 infections leads to irreversible paralysis and among those paralyzed, five to 10 per cent die when their breathing muscles become immobilized.

The cases of wild poliovirus (WPV) in Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan - the last three endemic countries – are down 40 per cent compared to this time last year, the WHO reported.

Afghanistan may have succeeded in halting endemic poliovirus circulation, with no cases in the traditionally endemic southern region since November 2012.

Meanwhile, in Somalia, a two-year-old girl from the capital, Mogadishu, became the first confirmed case of polio in Somalia in more than six years following confirmation in May. The country had been polio-free since March 2007.

A polio outbreak has since paralyzed nearly 100 children and threatens hundreds of thousands more who are not vaccinated.

On Syria, the WHO received reports on 17 October of a cluster of acute flaccid paralysis (AFP) cases, used to describe a sudden onset of the disease.

Syria had already been considered at high-risk for this and other vaccine-preventable diseases, but it has not experienced a case of polio since 1999.

Initial results from a national polio laboratory in Damascus indicate that two of the cases, detected earlier this month in Deir Al Zour province, could be positive but final results are being awaited from the regional reference laboratory of the Eastern Mediterranean Region of WHO.

The Ministry said a surveillance alert issued for the region to actively search for additional potential cases. An urgent response is currently being planned across the country.