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In West Africa, a major setback in the global effort to eradicate polio. This week, Nigeria announced two new cases of children paralyzed by the disease, the first cases detected on the African continent in more than two years. Now health officials are gearing up for a massive emergency immunization drive. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Health officials plan to vaccinate nearly 5 million kids in the coming months in a series of expanding geographic rings around where the two new cases were discovered. The new polio cases are in Borno State, in the northeast of Nigeria, near the border with Chad. Michel Zaffran, the head of polio eradication at the World Health Organization in Geneva, says this is a blow to the entire global eradication effort.
MICHEL ZAFFRAN: The outbreak, of course, is of great concern to Nigeria because there have been two years without a single case of polio. And they are mounting - the national authorities are mounting a very aggressive response to this outbreak that will start as early as next week.
BEAUBIEN: Up until this announcement, it appeared that Nigeria had successfully crushed the virus and was on track to be declared polio-free by the WHO. Despite this week's setback, the world has made incredible progress against polio over the last three decades. In 1988, when the global eradication program began, roughly 150,000 cases were being recorded each year in 125 countries. So far this year, there have been only 21 cases, and those have been confined to Pakistan, Afghanistan and now Nigeria. The WHO says these new cases appear to be linked to a strain of the polio virus that was found in northeastern Nigeria in 2012. Zaffran says this is also troubling.
ZAFFRAN: If this virus has been circulating undetected for almost four years, there is a risk that many more children have been paralyzed and affected by this virus.
BEAUBIEN: The cases are in a volatile part of Nigeria that's been terrorized by Boko Haram. Boko Haram has publicly denounced polio vaccination as a Western plot. It's killed immunizers and blocked government health officials from even entering some villages. Nigeria's health minister says the cases were only detected after a military offensive drove the militant Islamist group out of the area. While Pakistan and Afghanistan have made significant progress against polio this year, insecurity and attacks on vaccinators there also remain the biggest threats to stopping polio in those two countries. Jason Beaubien, NPR News.
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