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HEALTH-NIGERIA: Polio – Making Up For Lost Time

Mustapha Muhammad

KANO, Feb 14 2009 (IPS) - Six years ago, authorities in the northern Nigerian state of Kano suspended polio vaccination campaigns for thirteen months. It was a major setback for eradication of the disease, which has since regained a foothold in Africa's most populous nation and re-infected several other countries that were considered polio-free.

Mistrust of vaccines - and U.S. foreign policy - has hindered polio eradication in Nigeria. Credit:  Edward Parsons/IRIN

Mistrust of vaccines - and U.S. foreign policy - has hindered polio eradication in Nigeria. Credit: Edward Parsons/IRIN

Kano's suspension of immunisation campaigns in 2003 followed claims by radical Muslim clerics and some doctors that the polio vaccine was tainted by substances that could sterilise children as part of a plan spearheaded by the United States to depopulate Muslim countries. The rumour quickly gained ground due to the influence and respect commanded by clerics in this part of Nigeria.

Nasir Muhammad Nasir is the imam of the second largest mosque in Kano. He attributes the claims and resistance to a reaction against U.S. policies towards Muslim countries.

"Honestly, there is nothing wrong with polio vaccine. The suspicion and resistance against the vaccine is in reaction to America’s belligerence towards Muslim nations which we see as open hostility to Muslims," Nasir told IPS at his Fagge Juma’at mosque at the downtown Fagge neighbourhood.

"This is evident from the fact that the resistance and the rumour started with the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and became more pronounced with the annexation of Iraq by US forces in 2003, when Muslims watched helplessly as the U.S. bombed and killed Iraqis including women and children," Nasir said.

"The argument of the people here is that if the U.S. would be killing the children of their brethren in Iraq and Afghanistan, it doesn’t make any sense for the same U.S. to give drugs to save our children except if it has an ulterior motive, and so the rumour found fertile ground in which to thrive."

Despite the 2004 resumption of polio vaccinations in Kano after clinical trials in and outside Nigeria established the vaccines are safe, many people still cling to the clerics’ claims against the vaccine and refuse to administer polio drops to their children.

"I don’t believe the polio vaccine is safe. The so-called clinical trials do not convince me or many other parents because we think the Kano government was arm-twisted into resuming the immunisation campaign by the American and Nigerian governments," Kano resident Haladu Saminu, a father of four, told IPS.

Serious consequences

"In 2008 alone, Nigeria has infected at least seven African countries with the polio virus. These include Burkina Faso, Ghana, Sudan, Mali, Cameroun, Ethiopia and Central African Republic," said Sani Gwarzo, World Health Organisation (WHO) polio campaign coordinator for polio-endemic states in northern Nigeria.

For WHO’s Gwarzo, ignorance on public health matters is the major reason for the resistance. "It is nothing but ignorance of the importance of public health that will make parents reject the polio vaccine for their children. I believe once they realise its importance, they will accept it, which is why we have intensified public sensitisation campaigns."

Hamisu Walla, a doctor also working with WHO in Kano says impact extends beyond Nigeria and its neighbours.

"The most disturbing implication is that polio virus was on the verge of extinction with international collaboration, where only a few countries harboured the virus before Kano decided to suspend the campaign. This has brought a major setback in the global polio eradication initiative as Nigeria has re-infected dozens of other countries where polio had been phased out, including Saudi Arabia in the middle east and Malaysia in Asia."

The country is listed as one of the four polio-endemic countries in the world, the other three being Pakistan, India and Afghanistan. In 2008, according to statistics released by WHO, Nigeria recorded 799 polio cases.

Poliomyelitis is a highly infectious disease mainly affecting young children. It is caused by a virus transmitted through contaminated water or food. Many people show no symptoms of infection, but can still pass on the virus through their faeces. Symptoms of polio include fever, fatigue and pain in the limbs – in under one percent of cases, the disease causes permanent paralysis. While there has long been an effective vaccine to treat the virus, there is no cure.

People in wheel chairs or on crutches begging for alms with polio-withered limbs are a common sight in the streets of Kano. These beggars defy the frenetic traffic and squeeze their way between cars and trucks asking for handouts from motorists.

"Polio victims can hardly exploit their potentials due to their handicap and are often a liability to the society which in one way or the other bear the burden for their upkeep through alms," said Aminu Ahmed Tudunwada, the head of the polio victims' association in Kano which is involved in polio sensitisation campaigns.

Nigeria re-launched a polio vaccination campaign throughout the country Feb. 12-14, in which health workers moved door-to-door administering polio drops to 30 million children. As part of the campaign, software billionaire Bill Gates visited the country to announce a 50 million dollar grant to support polio eradication.

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