Wed, May 19, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Islamic area of Nigeria to attack polio

GLOBAL HEALTH Polio is making a comeback in the northern Nigerian state of Kano, where fears over the vaccine's effect on fertility halted immunization plans


African leaders approved an emergency strategy on Monday to immunize 74 million children in 21 nations against polio, UN officials said, amid signs a heavily Muslim Nigerian state is ready to abandon the vaccine boycott that allowed the disease to mushroom.

Nigeria's northern state of Kano has been the global epicenter of polio since last October, when authorities there kept children from being inoculated because of persistent rumors the vaccines are part of a US plot to cause AIDS or infertility among Muslims.

Kano has finalized a deal to import polio vaccines from a company in Indonesia, Kano government spokesman Sule Ya'u Sule said. State officials hope to permit children to be immunized in coming weeks once Kano government scientists approve the vaccines' safety, he added.

UN officials say the boycott has endangered global efforts to eradicate the potentially crippling disease. After smallpox, polio would be only the second disease known to be wiped out by man.

Polio usually infects children under five through contaminated water and attacks the central nervous system, causing paralysis, muscular atrophy, deformation and possibly death.

"When we are sure [the new vaccine] is safe, we will immediately conduct polio immunizations," Sule said. "People will be debriefed to build confidence that it is safe to use."

The UN and Nigerian federal authorities have vigorously rejected claims polio vaccines are unsafe, pointing to tests conducted by scientists in Nigeria and abroad.

Kano officials say their scientists found trace levels of a hormone officials fear could cause infertility in young girls. Some Islamic clerics have seized on the finding as evidence that immunization is part of a US-led plot to cause cancer, AIDS and infertility.

Nigeria's health minister, speaking in Geneva on Monday, said that Nigeria's federal government recently agreed with Kano on terms to restart immunizations, using vaccines that Kano officials would "for safety reasons, choose and buy ourselves."

"As these conditions are now being met, we have made preparations to support full catch-up immunization campaigns in Kano ahead of the nationwide activities in September, October and November," Lambo added.

As the epidemic continues to spread from Nigeria, African health ministers meeting in Geneva agreed on a plan on Monday to immunize 74 million children in 21 countries -- most of them previously thought to have eliminated the disease.

The new campaign stretches from Senegal in western Africa to Chad at the continent's center, said Bruce Aylward, Geneva-based coordinator of the UN World Health Organization's polio eradication initiative.

Anti-polio efforts are at a crux, Aylward said in a phone interview, saying a coordinated campaign could still eliminate the disease, while failure could result in a "full-blown epidemic" by next year, leaving thousands of children crippled.

Nigeria currently has 119 confirmed polio cases, the highest in the world and five times the 24 recorded one year ago, Aylward said. In that period, polio has spread from 10 to 23 Nigerian states and nine other African nations where it had previously been eradicated.

A US$3 billion, 16-year global campaign to eradicate polio has reduced cases of the disease from 350,000 in 1988 to fewer than 1,000 last year.

Among challenges facing anti-polio campaigners is raising the millions of dollars to fund the upcoming 21-country immunization drive, Aylward said.

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