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WHO Director-General calls India ‘number 1’ polio eradication priority

In India, Dr Brundtland commends Uttar Pradesh government in responding to largest polio epidemic in recent years

In response to the largest polio epidemic in recent years, Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), today launched a massive polio immunization campaign in the epicentre of the epidemic. To stem the epidemic and help eradicate polio, over 80 million children are to be vaccinated in six Indian states over the next six days. Dr Brundtland opened the campaign in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, together with the Indian Secretary of Family Welfare, Mr Prasado Rao, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mrs Sushri Mayawati and the Minister of Health of Uttar Pradesh, Mr Fagu Chauhan.

At the campaign launch, Dr Brundtland commented: “Eighty-three per cent of all new polio cases are now found in India. This country, and Uttar Pradesh in particular, are the number one priorities for stopping transmission of the polio virus around the world.” India is one of only seven countries to remain infected by polio. Successful immunization campaigns are crucial to ensuring the eradication of this crippling disease.

In 2002, the epidemic - the largest in the world since the Global Polio Eradication Initiative began in 1988 - spread across northern India, resulting in a six-fold increase in new cases over 2001. Uttar Pradesh was especially hard hit, with the state now accounting for 64% of all new polio cases worldwide . Of particular concern is the fact that the epidemic spread from Uttar Pradesh to previously polio-free areas within India, as well as to other countries. For example, polio transmission has been re-established in the Indian states of Gujarat and West Bengal, and in January 2003, a child was paralysed by polio in Lebanon for the first time in nearly ten years. Genetic sequencing of this virus confirmed it was from India.

The epidemic occurred after the number of planned polio vaccination campaigns was reduced in India in 2002. Additionally, as many as 15% of homes were not visited during the vaccination activities which did take place that year. To reverse this trend, Uttar Pradesh has confirmed six polio campaigns this year, and planning has been revised to ensure that every child under the age of five years is reached.

“I would like to commend the Government of Uttar Pradesh in taking precisely the measures needed to tackle this grave situation,” continued Brundtland. “Starting today, tens of thousands of volunteers and healthworkers will span the state, to knock on every door, with one very clear aim: to find and immunize every single child under five years of age.” This latest campaign follows two nationwide polio immunization rounds in January and February 2003, during each of which over 33 million children were immunized in Uttar Pradesh alone. Further campaigns are confirmed for June, September and November, and at least the same number of high-quality campaigns will be required in 2004 to interrupt wild poliovirus transmission.

“The support of the international community has never been more crucial than it is today,” said Dr Brundtland. “We need donors to fill the US$ 275 million funding gap we face globally, so that all activities can go ahead as planned. The generosity of the international community, and the successful partnership that has been formed with polio-infected countries, are crucial to ensuring the success of this initiative.”

“We have 15 years of experience in polio eradication,” concluded Brundtland. “We have the tools and we have the strategies to finish this job. Today there is simply no moral or economic justification for any child anywhere in the world to be crippled by polio.”

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative is spearheaded by WHO, Rotary International, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and UNICEF.

The polio virus is now circulating in only seven countries around the world, reduced from over 125 when the Global Polio Eradication Initiative was launched in 1988. The seven countries with indigenous wild poliovirus are (from highest to lowest risk): India, Nigeria, Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Niger and Somalia.

1. Reported cases globally for 2002 stand at 1925, as of 1 April 2003

For further information, please contact : Melissa Corkum, WHO, Geneva, (+41 22 791 2765), corkumm@who.int, Oliver Rosenbauer, WHO, Geneva, (+41 22 791 3832), rosenbauero@who.int.

For further information on the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, please see the polio eradication site , Rotary International’s PolioPlus site , CDC site , or the UNICEF polio site

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