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Dispute over meeting thwarts polio vaccinations in Sudan - UN

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United Nations said on Monday it had failed to vaccinate 165,000 children against polio in two Sudanese states after the government and rebels - who had both agreed to the immunization campaign - disagreed over whether another meeting was needed.

Sudan's government has been battling rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North in the border states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile. The violence intensified after the July 2011 secession of South Sudan, and Khartoum accuses South Sudan of backing the rebels, a charge that Juba denies.

John Ging, director of operations at the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said Khartoum and the rebels had reached a technical agreement on how a polio vaccination campaign would be conducted in South Kordofan and Blue Nile during a planned November 5-12 ceasefire.

"But in the end SPLM-North insisted on a final meeting to have final discussions - both sides have been past masters at always needing to have another round of discussion - and on this occasion the government of Sudan said no ... and that's where the impasse then arose," Ging told reporters in New York.

"The U.N. agreed there wasn't any need for further meetings, but at the same time of course if that's what it takes to get the vaccination campaign to happen then we'll have a further meeting," Ging said.

Ging, who briefed the U.N. Security Council on the situation on Monday, said if the United Nations were given the green light for the campaign, the world body could be on the ground the following day and able to vaccinate the 165,000 children in those two states in just four days.

China's U.N. Ambassador Liu Jieyi, president of the council for November, said the 15-member body was considering how it could help break the impasse over the vaccination campaign.

ZERO ACCESS

Polio invades the nervous system and can cause irreversible paralysis within hours. The crippling disease, which is caused by a virus transmitted via contaminated food and water, can spread rapidly among children under five, especially in the unsanitary conditions endured by displaced people.

"In the end the parties to this conflict, they have their excuses, they point the fingers at each other of course, but the bottom line is they don't pay the price," said Ging. "In this instance it's 165,000 children who are vulnerable to the scourge of polio."

Polio was last detected in southern Sudan - prior to South Sudan's independence - in 2008 and 2009. The virus paralyzed more than 100 children in southern Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. The region was declared polio-free again in 2010.

The World Health Organization said on Monday that a strain of polio that recently emerged in war-torn Syria - crippling at least 13 children - had originated in Pakistan and was spreading across the Middle East. Polio is endemic in three countries - Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

More than 20 million children, including 1.6 million in Syria, are to be vaccinated in Syria and neighboring countries over the next six months, U.N. agencies said last week.

A Security Council resolution adopted in May last year called for safe and unhindered humanitarian access in Blue Nile and South Kordofan states, but Ging said: "Unfortunately we have been filibustered with process and discussions and disputes which have amounted to no access whatsoever. Zero."

"There's 800,000 people in there who have had no humanitarian assistance from us in 18 months," he said.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Paul Simao)

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