The 10 states are the first of 18 previously polio-free countries that reported new cases since 2003 to stamp out the disease, the World Health Organisation said. A vaccine boycott in Nigeria was blamed for causing an outbreak that spread the disease across Africa and into the Middle East and as far as Indonesia.

"This is the light at the end of the tunnel," Bruce Aylward, coordinator of WHO's global polio eradication programme, said. "The world can be polio-free in another 12 to 18 months everywhere and the poorest countries in the world are committed to turning this around."

WHO said a polio epidemic has been successfully stopped in Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mali and Togo after health experts confirmed that there have been no new cases since June.

Deadly scourge

Over 200 children were paralysed for life in these countries during the last two years, the health agency said.

Activists are going door to door in
a bid to eradicate polio

"These are some of the poorest countries with the weakest health indicators in the world," Aylward said. "People are pretty cynical when they look at Africa but these countries have turned it around."
 
The reversal of these epidemics "is good for Africa, good for donors, and most importantly, good for the children of Africa," said Louis Michel, development chief of the European Union, one of the major contributors to the UN's continentwide campaign against the disease.

Islamic clerics in northern Nigeria led the 2003 immunisation boycott, claiming the polio vaccine was part of a US-led plot to render Nigeria's Muslims infertile or infect them with AIDS.

Polio epidemic

The Nigerian polio strain spread to 15 African countries before crossing the Red Sea, sparking major epidemics this year in Yemen and Indonesia.

Vaccination programmes restarted in Nigeria in July 2004 after local officials ended the 11-month boycott. But the delay effectively set global eradication efforts back at least a year, Aylward said.

WHO said it was intensifying eradication efforts in Nigeria, "where extensive disease transmission continues", warning that there could still be more outbreaks across the region.

"The world can be polio-free in another 12 to 18 months everywhere and the poorest countries in the world are committed to turning this around"

Bruce Aylward,
Coordinator of WHO's global polio eradication programme

On Friday, WHO also started a new mass polio campaign across 28 African countries - including the 10 where it has been effectively eradicated - to provide vaccines to more than 100 million children over the next two months.

But the agency said it was still short $200 million for its operations next year.

"Now it's simply (about) getting the financial resources to get this thing finished," Aylward said.

Polio is still endemic in six countries: Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Niger, Afghanistan and Egypt.

Last year, some 1267 people were infected in the world - with 792 of those in Nigeria. The total new cases in 2005 stands at 1492, according to WHO, with Nigeria, Yemen and Indonesia listed as the worst-affected countries.