ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) – Seven west African nations agreed Thursday to coordinate future immunizations against a polio outbreak that originated in northern Nigeria.

Meeting in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, health ministers from the polio-affected nations of Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Togo joined hosts Nigeria in agreeing to hold three rounds of vaccinations on the same days between September and November.

“No country can be completely free until all the neighboring countries are declared free” of polio, said Nigerian Health Minister Eyitayo Lambo.

The agreement represents the first public commitment by Nigeria and its neighbors to jointly combat polio since the disease began to spread last year.

Officials in a heavily Muslim northern Nigerian state recently announced plans to lift an 11-month ban on polio inoculations that sparked an outbreak across previously polio-free Africa and jeopardized a U.N.-backed plan to vanquish the illness worldwide by 2005.

U.N. officials now say immunizations could restart as early as July 30 in Kano, the Nigerian state that banned vaccinations in August amid rumors that the United States had tampered with the doses as part of a plot to render Muslim girls infertile.

Local officials later approved an Indonesia-produced vaccine.

In all, 10 other African countries saw polio infections linked to the outbreak in northern Nigeria.

Polio is a waterborne disease that usually infects young children, attacking the nervous system and causing paralysis, muscular atrophy, deformities and sometimes death.

The 15-year drive to eradicate polio around the globe by the end of next year has been stymied by the Nigerian immunization ban.

The region has seen 383 infections already this year – or 80 percent of the world’s total, according to World Health Organization data.

Nearly 1,000 children in 125 countries were being infected daily by polio in 1988 when WHO and other health organizations launched the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.

That number dropped to 483 for the whole of 2001, and health officials declared the disease was eradicated in Europe, the Americas, much of Asia and Australia.

AP-ES-07-29-04 1645EDT

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