Polio virus breaks into new frontiers

By Henry Neondo

The polio epidemic that emerged in West Africa last year is feared to have spread to other 16 considered polio-free countries and re-established transmission in six over the last year, according to a press release from the United Nations Children Education Fund, UNICEF.

“Polio has crossed the Red Sea into Saudi Arabia and Yemen and hopped across continents to Indonesia, which had been polio free for a decade”, the statement released on the May 13 said.

Now UNICEF says that stopping the virus in Africa, particularly in Nigeria and Niger, is critical to protect children across the region and in polio-free countries around the world.

African governments continue concerted and intensified efforts to stop the epidemic, supported by the global polio partners – the World Health Organization, Rotary International, the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and UNICEF.

Earlier this year the region aimed to immunize more than 100 million children through two coast-to-coast anti-polio drives. Health officials say positive results are beginning to show.

Case numbers are falling across the region. None of the countries where polio transmission was re-established last year have reported cases this year.

Even Nigeria, the largest reservoir of poliovirus on the African continent, has seen a sharp reduction of cases (77 children) compared to the same period last year (119).

Independent monitoring shows that the percentage of children missed during vaccination rounds have dropped to a nationwide average of 11 per cent the lowest-ever.

But polio-free parts of Africa are still under siege, particularly where there are weak health and immunization services and large groups of un-immunized children.

The Horn of Africa is particularly vulnerable, with its low rates of routine immunization and pockets of civil unrest.

Countries such as Somalia and Ethiopia – which already has 5 cases – are on the borders of the epidemic.

Re-infection of these countries would place serious logistical and financial burdens on the global eradication initiative, and protecting them is a major priority during these coming rounds.

To finance campaigns for the rest of the year, US $50 million is needed by July; some $200 million will be required in 2006 to maintain the population's immunity. Previous campaigns, repeated and synchronized, stopped polio in all but three African countries.

Vaccinators will be delivering vitamin A drops with the polio vaccine in many places – an immunity-boosting strategy that has saved an estimated 1.2 million lives over 12 years.

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