Nations Aim To Wipe Out Polio

Hungarian writer and Nobel Literature Prize winner Imre Kertesz sits in front of a video screen during the opening of the Book Basel fair in Basel, Switzerland on May 10, 2007.
AP Photo/Keystone/Georgios Kefalas
Health ministers from the last six countries in the world still trying to eradicate polio announced plans Thursday to immunize 250 million children multiple times during 2004.

The plan aims to wipe out the final "reservoirs" of the disease, which used to paralyze and cripple hundreds of thousands of children every year but is now on the verge of elimination.

Ministers meeting at the World Health Organization headquarters signed a declaration committing themselves to the plan. They added that they will need an extra $150 million in donations beyond the money already available under the Global Polio Eradication Initiative — the world's largest public health project.

"Nigeria is determined to break the chains of polio transmission for the sake of our children, our neighbors' children and the children of the world," said Nigerian Health Minister Eyitayo Lambo, whose country has the largest polio problem.

As well as Nigeria and India, polio is still considered to be endemic in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Niger and Egypt.

Multiple immunization campaigns are needed to ensure that no children are missed and to immunize newborns.

In 1988 when countries first started work on eradicating polio, around 1,000 children were infected every day. Only 677 cases were reported worldwide for the whole of 2003.

"We have a unique window of opportunity in which to end polio forever," said India's Health Minister Sushma Swaraj in a message from New Delhi. "We will seize this opportunity by reaching each and every child with vaccine."

She said preliminary data showed that there had already been an 84 percent reduction in polio cases in India in 2003 compared with the previous year.

The situation is less rosy in Nigeria, however, where the polio problem is growing. Immunization projects were brought to a halt late last year in the state of Kano because of rumors that the vaccine caused sterility. WHO said these are unfounded.

"With immunization activities stalled in Kano and polio campaigns of a sub-optimal quality in other northern states, polio was able to creep back across Nigeria and spread into previously polio-free countries," WHO said.

Lambo said his government has been negotiating with authorities in Kano and he is confident that their worries will soon be allayed.

"We are very hopeful that by the end of next week all the concerns they have raised will be addressed. They have promised that once the concerns are addressed, they will be ready to forge ahead," he told reporters.

Seven countries in Africa have been "reinfected," forcing health workers to carry out immunization campaigns across west and central Africa.

WHO warned that, if polio is not eradicated this year, it could spread because children in many countries free of the disease are no longer immunized.

"Not only is this the best chance that we have, but quite possibly it may be the last chance we have to finish the job," said Dr. Bruce Aylward, coordinator of the Polio Eradication Initiative at WHO.

Polio usually infects children under the age of 5 through contaminated drinking water and attacks the central nervous system, causing paralysis, muscular atrophy, deformation and, in some cases, death.

When WHO and other organizations launched the Global Polio Eradication Initiative in 1988, 125 countries were affected by the disease. It has since been eradicated in Europe, the Americas, much of Asia and Australia. The initiative has set itself a target of eradicating polio globally by the end of 2005.

"After an international investment of $3 billion over 15 years and the successful engagement of over 200 countries and 20 million volunteers, polio could be the first disease of the 21st century to be eradicated," WHO said.