GENEVA (Reuters) - A campaign to halt the spread of polio by
year-end is on track despite a new case in Saudi Arabia that
sparked fears it could be carried by Muslims going home after the
haj, the World Health Organization said on Friday. A Nigerian boy
living in Mecca, Islam's holy city, came down with the disease in
mid-December despite being vaccinated, but has recovered from
temporary paralysis, WHO officials said.
He was believed to have caught the crippling virus from visitors
from Nigeria, epicenter of Africa's polio outbreak, in what was
the third case "imported" into the kingdom from Nigeria or Sudan
"It is not a major setback to the initiative," Bruce Aylward,
coordinator of the WHO's global polio eradication initiative,
told a news briefing. "The stars have started to line up very,
very favorably in terms of getting it finished."
The United Nations agency is waging a campaign to stop the
transmission of polio by the end of 2005, but the number of new
cases rose 50 percent worldwide to 1,185 last year, largely
because of the continuing spread in Nigeria.
Polio, which mainly affects children under the age of five, is
carried by a virus and can cause irreversible total paralysis in
a matter of hours.
More than 2.5 million Muslims traveled to Mecca to attend the
annual pilgrimage which ended in late January. More than 95
percent of Saudi children are immunized, according to the WHO.
"What (the case in) Saudi Arabia reminds us is that we have to
get the vaccine into every kid right across west and central
Africa. This is the low season, the Achilles heel of the virus,"
In tropical areas, now in a dry period, it is the low season for
transmission, ideal to try to stamp out the virus, he said.
Government commitment was also strong ahead of a campaign to
immunize 80 million children in 18 west and central African
countries in late February.
Africa's polio epidemic was caused by a 10-month halt in
immunization in the northern Nigerian state of Kano where Muslim
elders said the vaccines were part of a Western plot to spread
HIV and infertility, according to WHO officials. Nigeria, which
resumed immunization last July, had 763 cases in 2004.