WHO: Major polio epidemic hits Yemen, 22 infected [Archives:2005/838/Local News]

May 2 2005

GENEVA (Reuters) – A polio epidemic has infected 22 children in Yemen, and the paralyzing virus threatens to spread further, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Friday.

The United Nations agency, which reported four cases around the Red Sea port city of al-Hodeidah last week, said 18 more children had contracted the disease in the poor Arab state.

It is the latest setback to the WHO's campaign to wipe out transmission of polio worldwide by year-end. An epidemic that originated in Nigeria has swept across Africa since mid-2003.

“What we are facing now is a major epidemic of polio in Yemen,” David Heymann, head of the WHO's polio eradication program, told a news briefing in Geneva. It is not yet known whether there are any fatalities among the victims, who include children from all over Yemen.

“Experts fear that the number of cases will rise in the immediate future,” the WHO said in a statement. It said it is investigating other suspected cases, and low immunization rates among Yemeni children could facilitate the outbreak's spread.

The polio virus mainly affects children under the age of five and can cause irreversible paralysis in a matter of hours. Yemen, which last reported polio in 1996, is the 15th previously polio-free country to be re-infected since mid- 2003, including 13 in Africa and Saudi Arabia.

The WHO was awaiting genetic analysis of the virus to determine whether it had come from neighboring Saudi Arabia or Sudan, which have both registered cases in the past year. “We'll probably never be able to know whether the virus came from pilgrimage (to Mecca) or from guest workers…What is important is that the virus is here, and now we have to stop it,” Heymann said.

Yemen conducted a mass vaccination campaign in mid-April and further immunization rounds are planned in May and June. A monovalent oral vaccine against type 1 polio, recently licensed by Sanofi-Pasteur, a unit of French drug maker Sanofi-Aventis, is being used in Yemen.

“We are very confident this vaccine will help us end this polio epidemic,” Heymann said.

In 2004, polio cases worldwide jumped to 1,267, up from 784 the previous year, the WHO said. The eradication campaign suffered a severe blow in 2003 when Nigeria's Kano state banned vaccines because Muslim elders said they were part of a Western plot to spread HIV and infertility.

Immunization resumed last July, but the 10-month ban helped the virus reach epidemic proportions on the African continent.