Monday, September 28, 2015

Polio is Gone From Nigeria, WHO Says

Nigeria has been declared free of transmission of polio, leaving just two countries in the world where the virus is still regularly spreading: Pakistan and Afghanistan. It's a big step towards the eradication of a disease that paralyzes children for life and that's easy to prevent with a vaccine that costs just a few cents. The World Health Organization announcement means that polio is no longer endemic in Nigeria, which was the last country in Africa with regular, ongoing transmission of the virus. "Nigeria has brought the world one major step closer to achieving this goal and it's critical that we seize this opportunity to end polio for good and ensure future generations of children are free from this devastating disease." Vaccine workers battled mistrust and rumors, and worked around attacks by the militant group Boko Haram, to get kids vaccinated against the paralyzing virus, said John Vertefeuille, polio incident manager for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "They would just go out day after day and make sure they were getting vaccine into kids," Vertefeuille told NBC News. It'll be two more years before Africa is declared polio-free. The virus can lurk in the body and it can go unreported in rural areas, so it takes a few years to be certain the virus isn't popping up anywhere. But it is not being actively transmitted, WHO said. "The outstanding commitment and efforts that got Nigeria off the endemic list must continue, to keep Africa polio-free. We must now support the efforts in Pakistan and Afghanistan so they soon join the polio-free world," said WHO director-general Dr. Margaret Chan. WHO is part of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, which includes national governments, the non-profit Rotary International, the CDC, UNICEF, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. They've been pushing hard to eliminate polio, which infects only humans so it could be eliminated by vaccinated, as smallpox was in 1979. Just 41 cases of polio have been reported globally, compared to 200 cases this time last year. "As recently as 2012, Nigeria accounted for more than half of all polio cases worldwide," the Global Polio Eradication Initiative said in a statement. "Since then, a concerted effort by all levels of government, civil society, religious leaders and tens of thousands of dedicated health workers have resulted in Nigeria successfully stopping polio. More than 200,000 volunteers across the country repeatedly immunized more than 45 million children under the age of five years, to ensure that no child would suffer from this paralyzing disease." War and unrest is the biggest barrier to vaccination. Rumors and fears about the vaccine also interfere. Nigerian workers had to fight rumors that the vaccine was deliberately formulated to make Muslims sterile, and one successful approach was getting a vaccine that was manufactured in Indonesia, a Muslim country. Attacks by Boko Haram, a militant Islamist group that is fighting Nigeria's government, added to the complications.

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