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HEALTH REPORT – Polio Threatens Africa - 2004-06-29

Broadcast: June 30, 2004

This is the VOA Special English Health Report.

Health officials say the spread of polio from Nigeria into ten other countries in Africa threatens years of progress to end the disease.

Polio weakens the muscles and nerves. Severe cases can cause loss of movement and sometimes death. Young children are most often the victims. Polio is caused by a virus that is usually spread through water that contains waste from an infected person.

In nineteen-ninety-eight, the World Health Organization and other agencies launched the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. This campaign has reduced new cases by ninety-nine percent. Polio is still also found in Afghanistan, Egypt, India and Pakistan.

The goal has been to end polio by next year. But the W.H.O. says five times as many children in west and central Africa have gotten polio so far this year compared to the same period last year. Around two-hundred children have been paralyzed in Nigeria since late last year.

That was when the current situation began. Some Islamic leaders in the state of Kano, in northern Nigeria, told the public that the vaccine that prevents polio was unsafe. They said it was part of a Western plot to harm them.

Concern spread, and polio vaccination efforts halted. Soon, polio cases appeared in nearby countries that had been free of the disease.

Before last year, Nigeria and Niger were the only countries south of the Sahara with polio. Since then, the virus has been found in Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Central African Republic. Chad, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Togo have also had new infections. Scientists linked all these cases genetically to Nigeria.

The same is true with the first case of polio in Sudan in more than three years. Last month a child became paralyzed in the Darfur area of western Sudan. Darfur already has a humanitarian crisis. Arab fighters supported by the government have been destroying villages of black African Muslims to crush a rebellion.

In Nigeria, Kano state officials announced in May that they would restart polio vaccination efforts. Campaigns are being organized for twenty-two African countries this October and November. That is the season when polio cases are highest. The goal is to vaccinate more than seventy-million children.

The VOA Special English Health Report was written by Cynthia Kirk.