200 children in Somalia stricken with polio -WHO

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GENEVA, Mar 24 (Reuters) Nearly 200 children in Somalia have been paralysed with polio since the disease re-emerged in July, and the virus is spreading in the lawless country, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said today.

A nationwide vaccination campaign is being launched on Sunday to try to reach 1.4 million Somali children aged under five, the United Nations agency added.

''The polio outbreak in Somalia, which occurred in July 2005 with an importation of polio virus, has affected a total of 199 children to date,'' the WHO said in a statement.

Polio, caused by a viral infection involving the brain and spinal cord, can paralyse a child for life within hours. In about 10 percent of cases there is a full recovery.

Four in five of the cases since July were recorded in the capital Mogadishu, where the virus now seems to be on the decline after immunisation campaigns, but it has spread to Lower Juba in the south and Mudug in the northeast, the WHO said.

In all, the crippling virus is now been reported in eight of Somalia's 19 regions. ''It is a big outbreak,'' WHO spokesman Oliver Rosenbauer said.

Somalia is the 19th country reinfected with polio since Nigeria's northern state of Kano suspended immunisations in 2003, allowing the virus to spread to neighbouring countries.

Vaccinations resumed after a 10-month ban imposed after religious leaders said they could cause sterility or spread HIV/AIDS.

The WHO launched a worldwide campaign in 1988 to wipe out polio, but failed to reach its target of halting transmission worldwide by the end of 2005.

REUTERS AD PM1750

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