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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 January, 2004, 15:09 GMT
'Final push' against polio agreed
By Ania Lichtarowicz
BBC health correspondent

Mass immunisation campaigns that aim to vaccinate 250 million children against polio have been announced following an emergency meeting at the World Health Organisation.

After discussions, representatives from the six remaining polio endemic countries committed their governments to eradicating the virus by the end of this year.

A child receives the vaccine in Lagos
Some schemes were halted after claims about side-effects
Nigeria's health minister was the first to sign the declaration followed by Afghanistan, India, Egypt, Niger and Pakistan - the remaining polio endemic countries.

The $3bn campaign has already missed its initial target of ridding the world of polio by 2000, and many doctors suspect this could be the last chance to achieve it.

When the Global Polio Eradication Campaign started in 1988, more than 125 countries were affected.

Last year, there were only 700 cases of polio around the world.

But there has been a major setback over the last few months.

Polio eradication is no longer a health issue - it is a political issue
Dr Bruce Aylward, WHO
Immunisation schemes in Nigeria's northern states stopped last year after some Islamic clerics claimed the vaccine could cause infertility and was unsafe.

Independent scientific tests carried out in South Africa and Nigeria have shown no traces of anti-fertility agents in the vaccine.

But it has led to neighbouring countries - already declared polio-free - being re-infected with the virus.

Extra campaigns

The declaration is being seen as a major push by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative to achieve their goal by the end of the year.

Nigeria's neighbours are at risk
Dr Bruce Aylward, the co-ordinator of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative at the WHO, said the six countries had recognised that the issue required action from the top levels of government.

"I think this declaration is incredibly important because the countries are committed," he told the BBC.

"They were committed before, but there is a renewed commitment and a different scale of commitment now. Polio eradication is no longer a health issue. It is a political issue."

Unless every child at risk is immunised the effort will have been wasted and the virus will spread quickly throughout the world.

Additional campaigns in countries reinfected by polio from Nigeria are estimated to cost more than $10m so far.

Once this containment is achieved, the next step will be to rid the six remaining endemic countries of polio by the end of this year altogether.

With increased political support and a detailed immunisation programme planned by the remaining endemic countries, there is a feeling of hope here that the world may soon be polio free.


SEE ALSO:
Polio drive relaunch in Nigeria
13 Nov 03  |  Africa
Polio 'firewall' around Nigeria
23 Oct 03  |  Africa
Polio cases on the increase
25 Apr 03  |  Health
WHO adopts new polio strategy
13 May 03  |  Health


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