Massive international effort to stop polio epidemic across West Africa

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Health experts today confirmed that a devastating polio epidemic in west African countries is on the verge of being stopped – but warned that complacency could breathe new life into the outbreak. Since mid-2009, polio has re-infected eleven countries across West Africa, claiming many lives and leaving hundreds of children paralyzed for life.

A series of synchronized, multi-country immunization campaigns in the second half of 2009 and 2010 have now succeeded in all but wiping out this outbreak. A further multi-country campaign on 25 March and again on 28 April across 15 countries will aim to immunize more than 38 million children, by a network of more than 180,000 volunteers armed with 48 million doses of polio vaccine, to extinguish any remaining chains of polio transmission. At the same time, polio eradication efforts are further intensifying in Nigeria, the only endemic country in Africa; over the past 12 months, the number of new cases in the country has been slashed by an impressive 95 per cent in 2010 compared to 2009.

But while the region stands on the threshold of a public health success, experts warned against complacency, cautioning that any pockets of unimmunized or under-immunized children could result in the outbreak gaining a second wind. This risk was further underscored with confirmation of a new case reported in March in Niger, across the border from northern Nigeria.

“These latest campaigns are critical to re-achieving a polio-free West Africa,” said Dr Luis Gomes Sambo, the World Health Organization Regional Director for Africa. “Under the leadership of the governments of countries across the region, this epidemic is on the verge of being stopped, but we must all invest the necessary resources to stop polio for ever in our Region.”

Even after the outbreak is stopped, periodic vaccination campaigns, along with routine immunization, will continue to ensure immunity amongst the population and to minimize the risk of another outbreak. Key to success will be the continuing engagement of political, religious and community leaders whose support has underpinned the drive to stop polio in the region.

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) is spearheaded by national governments, WHO, Rotary International, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and UNICEF. Since 1988 (the year the GPEI was launched), the incidence of polio has been reduced by more than 99 per cent. In 1988, more than 350,000 children were paralysed each year in more than 125 endemic countries. In 2010, 1,294 cases were reported worldwide, from 20 countries. Worldwide, only four countries remain endemic: Afghanistan, India, Nigeria and Pakistan.

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