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8/30/04 - POLIO IN AFRICA  - 2004-08-30

The crippling and often deadly polio virus was once on the brink of extinction. But the disease is again spreading in parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Cases of polio have now been reported in Darfur, the war-torn region of western Sudan. Mali and Guinea are also reporting polio outbreaks. Since January 2003, more than five-hundred cases of polio have been reported in twelve African countries. The World Health Organization says the key source of the outbreak is northern Nigeria, with more than four-hundred cases of polio.

Sudan had been polio-free for at least two years. In Darfur, attacks on African Sudanese villages by government-supported Arab militias have led to the displacement of more than one-million people. Robert De Bernardi, a United Nations official, says that refugee camps could become a breeding ground for polio and other diseases:

“In the camps of Darfur, because of the situation of sanitation and water supply, and crowding, et cetera, there is a potential for any outbreak which is water-borne linked to the four Fs: food, finger, feces, and flies.”

Polio is highly infectious and can spread easily from country to country. Four of the polio cases reported in Sudan are said to be from the same strain of polio found in northern Nigeria. In July, the Nigerian state of Kano re-started its vaccination program. It had been suspended in response to false rumors that the polio vaccine was being used to spread AIDS and infertility. In re-starting the campaign, Ibrahim Skekarau, Kano’s governor, personally administered the vaccine to his daughter. He says that Kano state will no longer lag behind in polio eradication efforts. The World Health Organization estimates it will require an additional one-hundred million dollars to repair the damage done by the suspension of vaccinations in Kano state.

Melissa Corkum, a World Health Organization official, says “It’s critical...that all children are reached to protect them against polio so that it doesn’t spread even further.”

In total, the U.S. has pledged more than nine-hundred-million dollars to the global Polio Eradication Initiative. President George W. Bush says the U.S. is committed to taking all necessary steps to eradicate polio by the end of 2005.