Polio epidemic menaces West And Central Africa
West and Central Africa faces the most dire polio epidemic in years, with five times as many children paralyzed from the disease so far this year as during the same period in 2003, epidemiologists with the Global Polio Eradication Initiative warned yesterday, after it was confirmed that a child was stricken with the disease last month in Sudan — the 10th previously polio-free country in Africa to see resurgence of the disease following the Nigerian state of Kano's decision last year to halt polio vaccinations amid rumors that the vaccine would cause infertility and was contaminated with HIV.
The new cases have been linked to Nigeria. Kano state said last month it will soon resume vaccinations, after testing a vaccine imported from Indonesia, but UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy cautioned that many families would still have to be reassured about the safety of the vaccine.
Epidemiologists fear a major epidemic this fall, polio's "high season," that would leave thousands of African children paralyzed. Children in countries surrounding Nigeria are particularly vulnerable because less than half are routinely immunized against a series of diseases, including polio, epidemiologists said. They called for a massive immunization drive in 22 African countries in October and November, aiming to reach 74 million children.
"There is no question that the virus is spreading at an alarming pace," said David Heymann, the World Health Organization's representative for polio eradication.
An additional $100 million is needed to halt polio's recent spread, according to UNICEF. About $3 billion has been spent worldwide since 1998 on efforts to eradicate the disease.
At the beginning of last year, only two sub-Saharan African countries were still polio-endemic — Nigeria and Niger. The resurgence of polio in sub-Saharan Africa comes as the four other polio-endemic countries — Afghanistan, Egypt, India and Pakistan — are expected to be free of the disease by the end of the year (UNICEF release, June 22).