- The World Health Organisation (WHO) today confirmed the first polio case in Botswana since 1991. A seven-year-old boy has been infected by polio virus related to the infection pool in Nigeria, where immunisation is halted by local authorities. Batswana officials are shocked by this new polio case and are already considering a new nation-wide immunisation programme.
The Botswana polio case is the first in the entire region of Southern Africa in one decade and raises fears that the disease may be returning to the subcontinent. The disease has already spread to the previously polio-free West and Central African countries of Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana and Togo.
Reporting the Botswana polio case, the WHO today underlining the spreading risk to polio-free areas of imported infection from northern Nigeria, where immunization was suspended last year. "Children across Africa will continue to be at risk of polio from such importations until the disease is eradicated everywhere," agency said in a statement today.
The magnitude of the risk posed to polio-free areas is compounded by the growing vulnerability of populations to polio globally after the cessation of preventive polio immunization campaigns in most polio-free countries in 2002 to 2003, the WHO statement added. The statement further reminded of the unprecedented spread of poliovirus from Northern Nigeria to eight countries during the past 18 months.
These cases have been associated with an extensive outbreak in Nigeria after immunisation was suspended in some northern states in August 2003, when religious and other leaders voiced concern over the safety of the oral vaccine. As of March 2004, all Nigerian states with the exception of Kano had resumed mass polio immunisation.
In the new case, a seven-year-old boy from Ngami in north-western Botswana - close to Namibia and Zambia - had onset of paralysis in February. The young boy is not reported to have been travelling to West or Central Africa. This indicates that he may have been infected in Botswana and that there must be more Batswana carrying the virus. Authorities have no information regarding how many people are infected and where they are.
The discovery came as a total shock to local officials. The Batswana government, WHO and the UN children's agency UNICEF are currently preparing an emergency response, including heightened disease surveillance. A costly "nation-wide immunisation campaign to ensure that any transmission is stopped rapidly" is also considered, according to WHO.
The WHO is concerned about a possible spread of polio to Botswana's neighbour countries in the Southern African region. The agency is now notifying neighbouring countries of the polio importation to the region and urges them to "further strengthen their surveillance for polio and routine immunisation coverage."
The WHO, UNICEF and other agencies have for decades been working to eradicate polio from the surface of earth. Last year, the disease was only endemic in parts of Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Niger and Egypt and mass immunisation campaigns were to eradicate the disease by the end of this year.
Due to the halt in immunisation in Northern Nigeria, however, polio is again spreading across Africa. In Southern Africa, the last polio case had been registered in 1997, following costly mass vaccination campaigns.
Since the region was declared polio-free, immunisation has ceased and a new generation of non-immunised children has grown up. Batswana health officials thus expect they will have to launch a new immunisation campaign to reach the entire new generation. A campaign reaching 250,000 children is estimated to cost close to US$ 1 million
Meanwhile, the UN, its agencies and a growing number of African countries are urging Nigerian authorities to immediately resume immunisation in the state of Kano so that the disease stops pouring into neighbour countries and regions.
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