GENEVA (AP) _ Polio has spread to new countries in Africa, threatening to become a major epidemic in the region and further setting back global attempts to wipe out the crippling disease, U.N. officials said Tuesday.
``Epidemiologists from the Global Polio Eradication Initiative today confirmed the re-infection of Guinea and Mali, as well as three new cases in the Darfur region of Sudan,'' said a statement from the World Health Organization and other agencies.
The polio outbreak _ which has spread from northern Nigeria _ could turn into a major epidemic across central and western Africa as the polio ``high season'' begins in September, leaving thousands of African children paralyzed for life, the agency said.
``What this means is that the major epidemic of polio we've been fearing has now spread beyond the firewall we put in place ... as we tried to contain the virus as close as possible to the epicenter in Nigeria,'' Bruce Aylward, who coordinates WHO's anti-polio initiative, told reporters.
Guinea and Mali are outside a ring of countries that conducted synchronized immunization campaigns in February and March to try to limit the spread of polio from northern Nigeria and Niger, the statement said.
Polio usually infects children under the age of 5 through contaminated drinking water. It attacks the central nervous system, causing paralysis, muscular atrophy, deformation and, in some cases, death.
The disease has now appeared in about a dozen African countries, after being limited to only two at the beginning of last year.
WHO had been hoping to eradicate polio by Jan. 1 after a 15-year global immunization campaign, but efforts in Africa stalled in the face of resistance in northern Nigeria's heavily Muslim Kano state.
The immunization program resumed in Kano three weeks ago, but the disease had already spread to Guinea and Mali, WHO said.
Both Guinea, which has one confirmed new case, and Mali, with two cases, had reported their last polio infection in 1999, the statement said.
The outbreak ``reaffirms the need to urgently boost population immunity levels throughout the region,'' it said. ``These new cases bring the number of previously polio-free countries to be re-infected since January 2003 to 12.''
The initiative is coordinating a new immunization campaign that aims to reach more than 74 million children under 5. But unrest in Ivory Coast and the Darfur region of Sudan will make it ``particularly challenging'' to immunize every child this year, the statement said.
Aylward said the vaccination campaign also is running short of funds. WHO will need US$15 million (euro12.4 million) by September and another US$35 million (euro28.8 million) a month later to stick to its schedule.
The polio virus is now endemic in only six countries worldwide, down from over 125 when the Global Polio Eradication Initiative was launched in 1988. The six are Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Niger, Afghanistan and Egypt.
As of Aug. 24, health authorities have reported 602 cases globally, with 476 in Nigeria alone. India reported 34 cases, Pakistan 23, Niger 19, Afghanistan three and Egypt just one.
Outside these six countries, Chad has reported 12 cases, Ivory Coast has nine, Burkina Faso has six, Benin six, Sudan five, Central African Republic three and Mali two. Guinea, Cameroon and Botswana each have one case.
Health experts have long warned of looming epidemics in Darfur, where thousands have been killed and more than 1 million left homeless in an 18-month conflict between settled farmers, who are mostly black Africans, and pro-government Arab militias.
Last year, there were 783 cases reported _ a massive decrease from the 1,000 or so infected daily when WHO and other organizations launched the immunization initiative in 1988. Other groups spearheading the program are Rotary International, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and UNICEF.
In 1988, 125 countries were affected by polio. It has since been eradicated in Europe, the Americas, much of Asia and Australia.