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New emergency immunization plan launched to protect horn of Africa, as polio is confirmed in Somalia

Global Polio Eradication Initiative receives critical Gates Foundation grant to protect 34 million children in the region

Joint News Release WHO/Rotary International/CDC/UNICEF

11-year-old boy paralysed by polio, at the stadium in Baidoa, Somalia
11-year-old boy paralysed by polio, at the stadium in Baidoa, Somalia

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative - spearheaded by the World Health Organization, Rotary International, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and UNICEF - today launched an ambitious new series of polio immunization campaigns to prevent the re-establishment of the disease in the Horn of Africa. The new plan comes as a polio case is confirmed in Mogadishu, Somalia, a country which had been polio-free since 2002.

The plan will see large-scale series of immunization campaigns coordinated across eight countries - Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, and parts of Kenya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo - between September and November. The campaigns will reach more than 34 million children with multiple doses of polio vaccine and rapidly boost population immunity in the Horn of Africa. The rapid and large-scale response is largely possible due to a US$ 25 million grant provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and support by other donors including the Humanitarian Aid Department of the European Commission (ECHO).

The plan has been finalized over the past weeks, amid growing concern that outbreaks in neighbouring Ethiopia and Yemen could spread across porous borders with Somalia. Now, with confirmation of polio in Mogadishu, rapid implementation of the emergency measures are essential. Although five nationwide campaigns were conducted this year, most recently in June, July and August to prevent the risk of a large-scale epidemic, insecurity in the country and low routine immunization rates could still result in rapid spread of the virus across Somalia.

"The polio eradication initiative has shown the world that even in the poorest countries, widespread and debilitating disease can be defeated," said Patty Stonesifer, Co-chair and President of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. "Today, as a resurgence of polio threatens to roll back the amazing progress of the past 20 years, it is more important than ever that governments and donors support the final push to eradicate polio."

The first phase of the plan is being launched on 28 September in Somalia, where 1.5 million children under the age of five years will be targeted for immunization. To maximise the impact of the campaigns, some of the countries will be using the recently-developed monovalent oral polio vaccine type 1 (mOPV1). Licensed earlier this year, also with support by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, mOPV1 offers higher protection against poliovirus type 1, the specific virus currently affecting the Horn of Africa, with fewer doses than traditional trivalent polio vaccine.

Notes to editors

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative is spearheaded by national governments, the World Health Organization (WHO), Rotary International, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and UNICEF. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is a key partner in the global effort to eradicate polio. In addition to this most recent US$ 25 million grant, the Foundation previously provided US$ 85 million in funding, including US$ 10 million for the development of the monovalent oral polio vaccine.

The polio case in Somalia occurred in Mogadishu. The case - a 15-month old girl - had onset of paralysis on 12 July 2005. Genetic sequencing is ongoing to determine the origin of the virus.

Global polio eradication efforts have reduced the number of polio cases from 350 000 annually in 1988 to 1163 cases in 2005 (as of 6 September). Six countries remain polio endemic: Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Niger and Egypt, however poliovirus continues to spread to previously polio-free countries. In total, ten previously polio-free countries have been re-infected in late 2004 and 2005: Somalia, Indonesia, Yemen, Angola, Ethiopia, Chad, Sudan, Mali, Eritrea and Cameroon.

Evidence from other recent outbreaks in west and central Africa and Yemen confirms that rapid implementation of large-scale, high-quality immunization campaigns can rapidly stop epidemics in previously polio-free countries.

For more information contact:

Mr Oliver Rosenbauer
Polio Eradication Initiative, WHO/Geneva
Telephone: +41 22 791 3832

Ms Vivian Fiore
Rotary International
Telephone: +1 847 866 3234

Steven Stewart
Telephone: +1 404 639 8327

Claire Hajaj
New York
Telephone: +1 646 331 4547