Polio comes back to Yemen: hundreds of children struck down by disease

Hundreds of Yemeni children struck down by polio this year - four years after the country thought it had beaten the disease forever. Yemen got rid of polio once - for a period of four years after the last case was reported in 2001. But since late February, more than 470 Yemeni children have been hit with the disease, more than one-third of the total 1,273 cases detected worldwide this year.

The Yemen cases all stem from an outbreak in Nigeria two years ago, which occurred after Islamic clerics urged parents to boycott the vaccine. The polio that then sprung up in Nigeria spread first to Chad, then to nearby Sudan - and then across the Red Sea into Saudi Arabia and Yemen, the AP reports. In some cases, the virus was carried by job-seekers and in others by Muslim pilgrims.

In Yemen, health officials backed by the WHO and the United Nations' child welfare agency, UNICEF, recently held the fifth special nationwide vaccination round this year. A total of about 3.8 million children under age 5 received two drops of vaccine each.

Thousands of health workers and volunteers, many of them Yemeni women dressed in head-to-toe black chadors, went door-to-door checking for children to vaccinate. In some of Yemen's remote mountain areas, the people carrying the vaccine were winched up in baskets to villages perched on rocky outcrops to reach children.

Such efforts have seen a plummeting in the number of new cases, with the last Yemeni child testing positive Aug. 11. Health experts predict polio could be wiped out here - again - by later this year.

Polio attacks the central nervous system and causes varying forms of paralysis in under 5 percent of infected children. The three types of polio can be easily prevented through routine vaccinations _ making the disease a thing of the past in the developed Western world. Nationwide polio vaccination programs stopped in 2001 after the last polio case was reported, leading to a massive fall in immunization levels among almost 4 million Yemeni children under age 5. AM