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Egypt appears close to wiping out polio scourge

ABDALLA F. HASSAN | Reuters | February 22,  2001

CAIRO, Feb 22 (Reuters) – Egypt’s 17-year-old struggle to eradicate polio may soon be crowned with success, with not a single case of the crippling virus reported so far this year.


“We are now at the end of a polio era,” Tarek Abdel-Rahman, a doctor and project officer for the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) dealing with immunisation, told Reuters this week.


“The quality of the campaigns has increased dramatically from 1998 onward,” said Faten Kamel, medical officer for polio eradication at the U.N. World Heath Organisation (WHO).


The World Summit for Children, held in New York in 1990, set the goal of global polio elimination, but Kamel said there were still 20 countries considered “reservoirs” for polio.


Until recently, Egypt was listed among them, but reported cases have dwindled to three last year from nine in 1999 and 626 in 1991. No case has come to light this year.


“We need three years from the last case reported to declare the eradication of polio in Egypt,” Abdel-Rahman said.


The Health and Population Ministry has waged a multi-layered war on polio with the help of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), WHO, UNICEF and the Rotary Club.


National immunisation vaccinates all children under four against polio. The last round of the campaign vaccinated 7.2 million youngsters nation-wide, said Abdel-Rahman.


Wild virus transmission is mainly confined to the south. Local immunisation campaigns are triggered when health officials suspect its presence.


The poliomyelitis virus invades the central nervous system, spreads along nerve fibres and destroys nerve cells, paralysing muscles in a condition known as acute flaccid paralysis.


Doctors must immediately report cases of flaccid paralysis to the Health Ministry, which will then vaccinate anywhere from 10,000 to one million children around the suspected case.


Abdel-Rahman said routine immunisation coverage now exceeded 95 percent in Egypt.


Keeping the vaccine at the proper temperature is often a problem when electricity outages are common, said Nagwa Farag, a UNICEF communication officer.


Oral polio vaccine loses its potency at high temperatures, and must be kept below eight degrees centigrade from when it leaves the manufacturer until it reaches Egypt’s 4,000 rural health clinics – and the mouths of young children.

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