A major polio epidemic in West and Central Africa is inevitable in coming months, but the disease could be eradicated worldwide next year by mass immunizations, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Friday.
Health officials and volunteers in Africa and Asia, where the paralyzing disease is still endemic in some countries, were setting out on foot, bicycle and even camel to vaccinate 250 million children under age five against the crippling virus. Eighty million children in 23 West and Central African countries and 170 million in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan are being targeted, according to the United Nations agency. “We believe that if political commitment and technical activities reach the quality that they must reach in Africa and continue with high quality in Asia, the world will become polio-free next year,” David Heymann, head of WHO’s polio eradication program, told a news briefing. Campaigners had hoped to wipe out polio this year, but the virus has spread in the past 18 months from Nigeria to 12 African countries where it had been wiped out. This was mainly due to the northern state of Kano banning vaccines a year ago, out of misplaced fear that it caused infertility and spread HIV, WHO officials said. “There will be a major epidemic of polio, unfortunately, in Africa, because the vaccinations will not stop what is already going on…Africa will have an epidemic this year, they are having it right now,” Heymann said. 597 CASES IN NIGERIA Nigeria is home to 597 of the world’s 786 polio cases so far in 2004, against a total of 784 global cases in all of 2003. “We see at least 1,000 cases in Nigeria by year-end. It is possible that in a lot of countries the virus can be stopped, but it will depend on how well the campaigns go,” WHO spokesman Oliver Rosenbauer told Reuters. But political and Muslim religious leaders in Nigeria and throughout Africa are now united to fight back against a resurgence of the disease, according to Heymann. In Kano, where immunization resumed in late July after a 10-month ban, 70 percent of children under age five have received at least one dose in recent months, Heymann said. Rima Salah of the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said that mobilizing Muslim religious leaders was key. “A religious leader and traditional chief can mobilize people more than a political leader. When he speaks out, they listen to him and will vaccinate their children,” she said. As for Asia, there have been 62 cases so far this year in India, 31 in Pakistan and three in Afghanistan, the WHO said. “Asia, we believe, is in the last throes of polio eradication. India has gone for a week and a half now without a case of polio which is quite a long time in the high season of transmission,” Heymann said. Salah said that one million vaccinators being deployed in Africa were determined to reach “every child in every village.” “We’re using helicopters in Liberia and Sierra Leone, camels in desert countries such as Mauritania, and boats for countries on Africa’s coast,” she added. (Source: Reuters, Oct 2004)