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WHO Sounds The Final Call To Battle To Wipe Out Polio

By Hans Dahne     Nov 5, 2001 in Lifestyle
GENEVA(dpa) - It is with terror that U.S. film actress Mia Farrow thinks back when she was stricken with polio as an eight-year-old.
"I fell to the ground and couldn't get up again," she recalls. "It was 1954 and polio was sweeping across the country."
Even though no further cases of poliomyelitis has been reported on the American continent since 1994, Farrow has taken on duties as a Special Represenative for the United Nations Childrens Emergency Fund (UNICEF) in its "final race" to eradicate the infectious disease.
The strategic planning launched this year by the World Health Organisation (WHO) is aimed at freeing the globe of the disease by the year 2005.
Aside from the suffering inflicted on the victims and their families, an end to polio would make the 1.5 billion dollars a year now going into the worlwide polio vaccination campaign available for other health projects.
Since 1988, when the first global anti-polio campaign was launched, the number of those infected each year with the disease has dropped by 99 per cent - from 350,000 then to fewer than 3,500 in 2000. Initially, 2000 was the year targeted for completely wirely out the disease.
The 51 countries which make up the European zone of the WHO reported their last case of polio two years ago. It was a 33-month- old Turkish youngster named Melik Minas.
Poliomyelitis is a highly infectious virus, usually transmitted via tiny droplets or other body fluids, which ultimately invades the central nervous system. Initial symptoms are fever, fatigue and headaches.
According to the WHO, one out of every 200 infections results in paralysis, usually of the legs. Of those who become paralysed, nearly one out of 10 ultimately die of the disruption caused to the respiratory muscles.
On World Polio Day on October 28 - it marks the birthday, in 1914, of Johannes Salk, the man who invented the polio vaccine - the WHO will be presenting new and encouraging figures.
"So far this year only 395 cases have been confirmed," reports Claudia Drake, a WHO official in Geneva. The number could rise by year's end because final confirmation of each case takes a certain amount of time.
WHO is nevertheless hoping that by the end of the year, the transmission of polio will have been stopped in every country except for 10 in Asia and Africa. Last year the figure was 20 countries, while in 1988 at the start of the campaign it was 125.
The ten largest-risk countries are divided into two categories. The first includes Ethiopia, Bangladesh, India, Nigeria and Pakistan, nations with high populations and poor hygienic conditions.
The second comprises Afghanistan, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia and Sudan - where for years now, war and civil conflict have been raging. The WHO calls it a "challenge" to try to establish a comprehensive vaccination or diseases monitoring campaign under such conditions.
Last July, WHO sounded the call to arms for an attack on polio viruses in central Africa, one of the last bastions of the disease.
Under the framework of the first simultaneous and cross-border action in civil war regions, 16 million children below the age of five years were vaccinated in Angola, the Democratic Republic Congo, (DR) the Congo Republic and Gabon.
In the DR alone, 86,000 health service workers went from door to door, reaching even the most remote and difficult to reach regions.
Despite this success, health experts say one fundamental principle remains: until polio has been wiped out completely, no child is safe from polio.
As a warning example, they cite the Cape Verde Islands, which had belonged to the polio-free countries - until August 2000 when suddenly the virus was somehow brought in from Angola. Of 44 persons who suddenly became paralysed withe disease, including a number of adults, 17 have died.
The WHO and UNICEF have been praised for their "genuine Olympic effort" to wipe out polio and have gained the support of the Rotary Club and such personalities as Mia Farrow, model Claudia Schiffer, actor Roger Moore, tennis player Martina Hingis and Microsoft founder Bill Gates.
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