updated 11/11/2005 2:39:58 PM ET 2005-11-11T19:39:58

An inoculation campaign has eradicated polio in 10 African countries where the deadly disease was reintroduced after 2003, when a vaccine boycott in Nigeria was blamed for an outbreak across Africa, the Middle East and Indonesia, the U.N. health agency said Friday.

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The 10 countries were among 18 that had eliminated polio but saw it return after hard-line Islamic clerics in Nigeria claimed the vaccine was part of a U.S.-led plot to render Muslims infertile or infect them with AIDS. Vaccination programs restarted in Nigeria in July 2004 after local officials ended the 11-month boycott.

The World Health Organization called the progress a major boost to a global efforts to rid the world of the polio.

"This is the light at the end of the tunnel," Bruce Aylward, coordinator of WHO's global polio eradication program, told The Associated Press. "The world can be polio-free in another 12 to 18 months everywhere, and the poorest countries in the world are committed to turning this around."

WHO said a polio epidemic has been successfully stopped in Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mali and Togo after health experts confirmed there have been no new cases since June.

More than 200 children were permanently paralyzed in these 10 countries during the last two years, the health agency said.

"These are some of the poorest countries with the weakest health indicators in the world," Aylward said. "People are pretty cynical when they look at Africa, but these countries have turned it around."

The other countries that saw recurrences of polio because of the Nigerian boycott are Botswana, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen. Botswana and Saudi Arabia have reported no new cases this year.

Polio is spread when people _ mostly children under five _ who are not vaccinated come into contact with the feces of those with the virus, often through water. The virus attacks the central nervous system, causing paralysis, muscular atrophy and deformation and, in some cases, death.

Polio is still classified as endemic in six countries: Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Niger, Afghanistan and Egypt.

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