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Polio kills 206 in Republic of Congo

A rare and unusually fatal outbreak of polio in Republic of Congo has caused more than 200 deaths in the Central African nation, a UNICEF spokesman said Friday.

The disease usually strikes children under 5, but most of those affected have been young men between the ages of 15 and 24, said Martin Dawes, the agency's West Africa spokesman.

"Polio is an absolutely a red hot traveling virus, which will affect a lot of people if immunization rates are not good," Dawes said. "The fact we've have this virus means there was a hole in the immunization rates in the past."

Republic of Congo, a tiny nation often overshadowed by its much larger neighbor, Congo, was wracked by successive civil wars in the 1990s.

Up to 10 percent of people paralyzed by polio can die when their breathing muscles stop working. But Dawes said that 42 percent of the cases in Republic of Congo had been fatal.

The vast majority of them have occurred in the oil-rich coastal port city of Pointe Noire.

The World Health Organization, UNICEF and Rotary International said they began vaccinating some 3 million people in the Republic of Congo, Congo and nearby Angola last month. International aids groups have begun emergency immunizations in Pointe Noire and will continue them through the end of the year.

There is no cure for polio, which can only be prevented by immunization. Polio is carried in the feces of the infected and often spread by contaminated water. Polio has virtually disappeared from the West but is entrenched in a handful of countries, namely Afghanistan, India, Nigeria and Pakistan.

Oliver Rosenbauer, the World Health Organization's polio spokesman, said aid groups have significantly reduced the disease in Africa since 1996. But until polio is eradicated everywhere, all countries are at risk.

The outbreak in Republic of Congo "very much underlines this risk," he said.