February 4, 2005

WHO: Efforts to Eradicate Polio on Track

GENEVA (AP) -- The number of polio cases reported in Asia almost halved last year, meaning that efforts to eradicate the disease on the continent by the end of 2005 are on course, the World Health Organization said Friday. However problems remain in Africa.

Total cases in the three Asian countries that still have polio - Afghanistan, India and Pakistan - fell to 186 last year from 336 in 2003, after political leaders of all three countries lent personal support to mass campaigns to immunize 210 million children.

"Similar momentum this year should put an end to the transmission of polio in this particularly crowded corner of the world, which has proven a challenge to global eradication efforts," WHO said in a statement.

The health ministers of the three Asian countries met at WHO headquarters here this week to thrash out a plan to wipe out the crippling disease.

They decided to initiate two immunization campaigns in the six states and provinces where polio is present, to be followed by more widespread vaccination efforts throughout the rest of their countries, which are currently free from the disease, WHO said.

"It's looking very good for India, Pakistan and Afghanistan," Dr. David Heymann, who is overseeing WHO's effort to eradicate polio, told The Associated Press.

"Hopefully this will do it," Heymann said, adding that the immunization campaigns "will be phenomenal."

WHO has set a target to wipe out polio worldwide by the end of this year, but its efforts have been hampered by a vaccine boycott in Nigeria, which spawned a resurgence of the disease across Africa, infecting children in formerly polio-free countries.

Extremist Muslim clerics had led the boycott, claiming the polio vaccine was part of a U.S.-led plot to render Nigeria's Muslims infertile or infect them with HIV. Vaccination programs restarted in Nigeria in July 2004 and WHO also boosted immunization across Africa.

The health agency is still hoping to eradicate the disease in Africa, despite that setback, which raised the total of new cases on the continent to 1,040 last year from 389 the previous year.

"I think we'll have good progress. Whether or not it can be completely wiped out, we don't know, but we're hoping so," Heymann said. "The target is the end of 2005, and there's never been a greater engagement of top-level people than right now."

Polio is a waterborne disease that usually infects young children, attacking the nervous system and causing paralysis, muscular atrophy, deformation and sometimes death.

When WHO launched its anti-polio campaign in 1988, the worldwide case count was more than 350,000 annually.


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