Nigeria, seen as the key to wiping out polio in Africa, has made impressive gains against the disease in the year since religious leaders backed vaccination, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said yesterday.
A mass immunisation campaign targeting 85 million children in west and central Africa will be launched this weekend to halt the virus which spread out from northern Nigeria and sparked outbreaks in 17 African countries since 2008.
Only one polio case has been recorded so far this year in Nigeria, against 42 cases at this time a year ago in Africa's most populous nation, according to the United Nations agency.
"Nigeria's success is Africa's success. If we can eradicate polio in Nigeria we should be able to have Africa polio-free very quickly," WHO spokesman Rod Curtis told Reuters. "It is looking incredible."
Polio, which spreads in areas with poor sanitation, attacks the nervous system and can cause irreversible paralysis within hours of infection. Children under the age of 3 are most vulnerable to the disease that until the 1950s crippled thousands of people every year in rich nations.
Nigeria has struggled to contain polio since some northern states imposed a year-long vaccine ban in mid-2003. Some state governors and religious leaders in the predominantly Muslim north alleged the vaccines were contaminated by Western powers to spread sterility and HIV/AIDS among Muslims.
But traditional leaders throughout the country pledged in January 2009 to support immunisation campaigns and are pushing parents to have their children vaccinated, the WHO says.
"Traditional and religious leadership has facilitated us reaching more children. The number of cases has collapsed," Curtis said, noting there was a total of 388 cases last year.
More than 80 percent of children under five have been vaccinated against polio in most Nigerian states, he said.
But gaps remain, with somewhat lower immunisation rates reported in Kano, long considered the epicentre of polio in the country, and other northern urban areas, he added.
"If we can reach 80 percent of children for three campaigns in a row, then we can eradicate polio from Nigeria," Curtis told a news briefing.
The first wave of infection in countries surrounding Nigeria has petered out, with no new cases reported in the last six months, Curtis said.
"However, the second wave spread west as far as Mauritania and that is where we are focusing our most intense efforts at the moment," he stressed.
The synchronised campaign starts this weekend in 16 countries, followed by Ivory Coast, Niger and Togo which postponed immunisation due to political unrest or elections.
Some 400,000 volunteers will take part in the door-to-door campaign to administer two drops of oral polio vaccine to every child under five years old.
Polio is also endemic in Afghanistan, India and Pakistan, according to the WHO which has spearheaded the Global Polio Eradication Initiative since 1988. Polio paralysed nearly 1,000 children every day at the time and was endemic in 125 countries.
Worldwide there have been 34 cases so far this year, against 91 at this time in 2009. In 2009 there were 1,606 cases in all.
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