updated 1/15/2004 5:53:32 PM ET 2004-01-15T22:53:32

Health ministers from six countries where polio is still endemic announced plans at the World Health Organization on Thursday to immunize 250 million children during 2004 and wipe out the final reservoirs of the disease.

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International campaigns have brought polio — which used to paralyze and cripple hundreds of thousands of children every year — to the verge of elimination. But the disease has persisted in a few countries — even increased and spreading back into some areas in recent years.

Health ministers from the six nations signed a declaration committing themselves to the plan but added that they will need an extra $150 million in donations beyond the money already available under the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.

“Nigeria is determined to break the chains of polio transmission for the sake of our children, our neighbors’ children and the children of the world,” said Nigerian Health Minister Eyitayo Lambo, whose country has the largest polio problem.

Multiple immunization campaigns are needed to immunize newborns and to ensure that no children are missed.

In 1988 when countries first started work on eradicating polio, around 1,000 children were infected every day. Only 677 cases were reported worldwide for the whole of 2003.

“We have a unique window of opportunity in which to end polio forever,” said India’s Health Minister Sushma Swaraj in a message from New Delhi. “We will seize this opportunity by reaching each and every child with vaccine.”

Along with Nigeria and India, the declaration was signed by Pakistan, Afghanistan, Niger and Egypt, where polio is considered endemic.

Swaraj said preliminary data showed that there had already been an 84 percent reduction in polio cases in India in 2003 compared with the previous year.

Road blocks to success
But the situation is less optimistic in Nigeria where polio numbers are increasing. Immunization was halted late last year in the state of Kano because of rumors that the vaccine caused sterility. WHO said the rumors are unfounded, and Lambo said his government was negotiating with authorities in Kano and he is confident their worries would be allayed.

“With immunization activities stalled in Kano and polio campaigns of a sub-optimal quality in other northern states, polio was able to creep back across Nigeria and spread into previously polio-free countries,” WHO said.

Seven countries in Africa have been “reinfected,” forcing health workers to carry out immunization campaigns across west and central Africa.

WHO warned that if polio is not eradicated this year it could spread, because children in many countries free of the disease are no longer immunized.

“Not only is this the best chance that we have, but quite possibly it may be the last chance we have to finish the job,” said Dr. Bruce Aylward, coordinator of the Polio Eradication Initiative at WHO.

Polio usually infects children under the age of 5 through contaminated drinking water and attacks the central nervous system, causing paralysis, muscular atrophy, deformation and, in some cases, death.

When WHO and other organizations launched the Global Polio Eradication Initiative in 1988, 125 countries were affected by the disease. It has since been eradicated in Europe, the Americas, much of Asia and Australia. The initiative has set itself a target of eradicating polio globally by the end of 2005.

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