Polio has spread to new countries in Africa, threatening to become a major epidemic in the region and further hindering global attempts to wipe out the potentially crippling disease, the U.N. health agency said Tuesday.
“Epidemiologists from the Global Polio Eradication Initiative today confirmed the reinfection of Guinea and Mali, as well as three new cases in the Darfur region of Sudan,” said a statement from the World Health Organization and other agencies.
The polio outbreak — which has spread from northern Nigeria — could turn into a major epidemic across central and western Africa as the polio “high season” begins in September, the agency said.
Disease spreads beyond 'firewall'
“What this means is that the major epidemic of polio we’ve been fearing has now spread beyond the firewall we put in place ... as we tried to contain the virus as close as possible to the epicenter in Nigeria,” Bruce Aylward, who coordinates WHO’s anti-polio initiative, told reporters.
Guinea and Mali are outside a ring of countries that conducted synchronized immunization campaigns in February and March to try to limit the spread of polio from northern Nigeria and Niger, the statement said.
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.
The disease has now appeared in about a dozen African countries, after being limited to only two at the beginning of last year.
Nigeria halted eradication efforts
WHO had been hoping to eradicate polio by Jan. 1 after a 15-year global immunization campaign, but efforts in Africa stalled in the face of resistance in northern Nigeria’s heavily Muslim Kano state.
The immunization program resumed in Kano two weeks ago, but the disease had already spread to Guinea and Mali, WHO said. Both Guinea, which has one confirmed new case, and Mali, with two cases, had reported their last polio infection in 1999, the statement said.
The outbreak “reaffirms the need to urgently boost population immunity levels throughout the region,” it added. “These new cases bring the number of previously polio-free countries to be re-infected since January 2003 to 12.”
The initiative is coordinating an immunization campaign that aims to reach more than 74 million children under 5. But the statement said unrest in Ivory Coast and the Darfur region of Sudan will make it “particularly challenging” to immunize every child this year.
Vaccination campaign short on money
Aylward said the vaccination campaign also is running short of funds. He said WHO will need $15 million by September and another $35 million a month later if it is to stick to its schedule.
The polio virus is now endemic in only six countries, down from over 125 when the Global Polio Eradication Initiative was launched in 1988. The six are Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Niger, Afghanistan and Egypt.
As of Aug. 24, health authorities have reported 602 cases globally.
For the endemic countries the totals are Nigeria, 476 cases; India, 34; Pakistan, 23; Niger, 19; Afghanistan, three; and Egypt, one.
Outside them, Chad has 12 cases; Ivory Coast, nine; Burkina Faso, six; Benin, six; Sudan, five; Central African Republic, three; Mali, two; and Guinea, Cameroon and Botswana one each.
Epidemiologists fear a major epidemic this fall — the start of the polio “high season” — leaving thousands of African children paralyzed for life, WHO has said.
Health experts have long warned of looming epidemics in Darfur, where thousands have been killed and more than 1 million left homeless in an 18-month conflict between Arab militias, backed by the Sudanese government, and the black African population.
Total cases last year reached 783. When WHO and other organizations launched the initiative in 1988, about 1,000 children were infected each day. The initiative also is spearheaded by Rotary International, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and UNICEF.
In 1988, 125 countries were affected by polio. It has since been eradicated in Europe, the Americas, much of Asia and Australia.