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Global Campaign to End Polio Shifts Strategy

A global campaign to wipe out polio is changing its battle plan. The Polio Eradication Initiative says it's ending large-scale polio immunization programs in 80 countries to concentrate funds on 13 countries that face the biggest threat. NPR's Joanne Silberner reports on the new global strategy.

Polio remains endemic in seven countries: India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Egypt, Afghanistan, Niger and Somalia. But 99 percent of the world's polio cases are found in just three countries -- India, Nigeria and Pakistan.

Since 1988, the global program has reduced the number of cases from 350,000 annually to just 1,919 in 2002. Yet polio remains highly concentrated in several regions -- such as northern India. Health officials, faced with limited funding, say the most effective plan may be to focus money and vaccines on the regions that remain the most resistant to eradication. The new tactic shifts nearly 300 million vaccine doses into the tightened target zone, which includes six countries considered at high risk of polio reinfection -- Angola, Bangladesh, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Nepal and the Sudan.

"Until we stop transmission of the poliovirus in the ... remaining infected countries, children everywhere will remain at risk of contracting this disease," said Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, director-general of the World Health Organization.

Polio is caused by a virus that affects mainly children under five. It can cause permanent paralysis and death in some cases. The World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rotary International and UNICEF are the core partners in the campaign. Health officials hope the new campaign will help to wipe out polio by 2005. If successful, polio would be the first disease eradicated in the 21st century.

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Joanne Silberner is a health policy correspondent for National Public Radio. She covers medicine, health reform, and changes in the health care marketplace.
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