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Tuesday, 16 April, 2002, 07:40 GMT 08:40 UK
Polio opportunity could be lost
Polio victim
Polio can be a debilitating condition
A golden opportunity to rid the world of polio could be lost because of unstable conditions in the last remaining hotbeds of the disease, experts warn.

Levels of the disease are now at their lowest in recorded history. Just 537 cases were reported world-wide last year.

Countries where polio is endemic
The low figures are the result of a concerted drive to eradicate the disease launched by the international community in 1988.

When the initiative was launched the disease was still paralysing more than 350,000 children a year in 125 countries.

However, Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that the job is not finished.

She said: "The past year has reminded us that we live in a world where security and access to children cannot be guaranteed.

"So I urge the world to finish the job. Eradicate polio while we still have the opportunity."

Cases slashed

The efforts of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, spearheaded by the WHO, Rotary International, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the UN Children's Fund (Unicef), halved the number of countries where polio is endemic in just one year.

In 2001, just ten countries were classified as polio-endemic.

The number of new cases around the world was slashed by more than 80%, from 2,979 in 2000 to 537 in 2001. This represents a reduction of 99.8% since 1988.

The re-establishment of an effective polio eradication programme in Afghanistan should be a global priority

Global Polio Eradication Technical Consultative Group
The Global Polio Eradication Technical Consultative Group (TCG), which completed its annual review of the programme last week, noted that the three zones with the highest poliovirus transmission - northern India, Afghanistan/Pakistan, and Nigeria/Niger - continued to pose the greatest risk to the programme.

The polio surveillance system in Afghanistan has suffered over the past few months.

"The re-establishment of an effective polio eradication programme in Afghanistan should be a global priority," the TCG said.

"All partners, including all UN agencies and the provisional government there, must ensure the job of eradicating polio from Afghanistan is completed and that regional and global progress are not threatened."

Carol Bellamy, executive director of the Unicef, said each of the remaining ten countries with a serious polio problem had made tremendous progress.

But she said each faced a unique set of challenges.

"Throughout the battle to rid the world of polio, we have managed to reach children living in some of the most remote and challenging circumstances imaginable.

"Over the coming days and months, we must continue this unprecedented effort, using all of our resources to reach the very last child with polio vaccine."

Dangerous disease

Poliomyelitis is a highly infectious disease caused by a virus that mainly affects children under five years of age.

It invades the nervous system and can cause total paralysis in a matter of hours.

The virus enters the body through the mouth and multiplies in the intestine.

Initial symptoms are fever, fatigue, headache, vomiting, stiffness in the neck and pain in the limbs.

One in 200 infections leads to irreversible paralysis (usually in the legs).

Among those paralysed, 5-10% die when their breathing muscles become immobilised.

There is no cure, but a vaccine offers lifelong protection.

See also:

04 Jun 01 | Health
The lifelong fight against polio
04 Jun 01 | Health
Polio can cripple victims twice
03 Apr 01 | Health
Polio eradication draws closer
29 Oct 00 | Health
Polio milestone passed
20 Oct 00 | Health
Polio vaccine in BSE scare
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