Sun, May 08, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Arab world must do more to fight polio, experts say

DROP IN THE POT Persian Gulf countries are not pulling their own weight in the campaign to eradicate polio, even though the disease plagues Muslim communities

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , WASHINGTON

With polio surging rapidly through Muslim countries, public health officials trying to eradicate it are expressing frustration that wealthy Islamic nations contribute so little to the effort, despite repeated requests.

Fighting the disease has cost nearly US$4 billion since the eradication campaign began in 1985, and the campaign is urgently trying to raise US$250 million to handle this year's new outbreaks, but the Persian Gulf states have given less than US$3 million so far.

"It would be a good sign for Islamic countries to see other Islamic countries giving," said Dr. David Heymann, the World Health Organization director general's representative for polio eradication. "But they've come in more slowly than we expected."

Kul Gautam, the deputy executive director of UNICEF, which buys vaccine for poor countries, said it was unfortunate that donations from wealthy Gulf nations "still make up such a small proportion of the overall contribution to this global public good."

Stephen Strickland, the chief of polio eradication for the UN Foundation, which has contributed US$30 million and raised tens of millions more, was more brusque, calling a recent Saudi pledge of US$500,000 "peanuts" and criticizing Kuwait for offering nothing while poor Islamic countries like Chad and Burkina Faso struggle to vaccinate millions of children.

"They could certainly do more," he said. Because the new outbreak started in Nigerian Muslim communities that resisted vaccination and was apparently spread by pilgrims to Mecca, "you would think they'd take the lead in this," he added.

Several calls over two days seeking comment from the Saudi and Kuwaiti embassies in Washington went unreturned.

Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the secretary general of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, an umbrella organization of 57 Islamic countries, agreed that members "will have to increase our efforts" and said he would raise the issue again at a meeting of the conference's foreign ministers in late June.

In 2003 and last year, the conference passed increasingly urgent resolutions asking its members and Islamic charities to donate.

With the first, it noted that six of the seven countries with polio then were members: Nigeria, Pakistan, Egypt, Afghanistan, Niger and Somalia.

The seventh was India, where the disease is concentrated largely in Muslim areas.

But those appeals produced only US$1.2 million from the United Arab Emirates, US$1 million from Malaysia, US$330,000 from Qatar and US$100,000 from Oman, plus the Saudis' $500,000 pledge.

Since then, polio has spread to 16 countries, most of them members of the conference, including Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Yemen, Sudan, Chad, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Mali, Benin, Guinea and Ivory Coast.

Ihsanoglu's press adviser, Ufuk Gokcen, said the conference did play a crucial role in getting northern Nigerian states to start vaccinating again after they stopped for 11 months in 2003 and last year because of rumors that the vaccine was a Western plot to sterilize Muslim girls and spread AIDS.

Its officials met with religious leaders from Kano state in Nigeria "to discuss the duty of parents in ensuring that every child is protected from polio," Gokcen said.

They also delivered edicts endorsing vaccination from the Islamic Fiqh Academy, a scholarly organization based in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, associated with the conference.

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