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Vaccine-Derived Virus Threatens Nigeria's Polio Campaign

A rare outbreak of vaccine-derived polio in Nigeria has prompted fears that current efforts to eradicate the disease in northern part of the country could suffer a major setback. The World Health Organization says 69 children in Nigeria caught the paralyzing disease from others who had been immunized. From Kano, Gilbert da Costa reports the outbreak could reopen suspicions about Western vaccines in one of the most endemic regions.

Figures released by UNICEF indicate that for the first time since 2002, Nigeria does not have the highest number of polio cases globally.

They show an overall 80 percent decline in the number of children infected with wild polio between January and August 2007. Only 198 cases of polio have been recorded so far this year, compared with 945 cases in 2006.

In the teeming northern city of Kano, the streets are lined with green steel plates bearing scrawled quotes from the Koran. Women tucked into their hijabs and veils hurry past in this predominantly Muslim region.

Musa Salisu, 47, was paralyzed by polio at a tender age. His wife, Hadiza, is also a polio victim, same as Ibrahim, their four-year-old son.

Salisu leads some 900 polio victims on advocacy campaigns across the bustling metropolis. They accompany vaccination teams to areas where resistance is still a bother.

Salisu tells VOA that he often asks reticent mothers a simple question; do you want your child to end up a cripple like me?

"If my members never enter into awareness [campaign] with the people, the people can never agree [to be vaccinated]," he noted. "Because most of the time if we go round for immunization, house-by-house, if the owner of the house cannot agree to immunize their children, we will advise him, 'do you want your son to be like me?' The person [will] say, 'I will not agree.' I will say, okay, give your son for immunization."

Kano has long been the epicenter of resistance to polio vaccinations. In 2003, Muslim clerics led a 13-month boycott of polio vaccinations, arguing that the vaccines were part of a Western plot to sterilize Muslims.

The Nigerian government and its international partners are deeply worried the confirmation of vaccine-derived polio in parts of northern Nigeria could undermine growing support for vaccination in the region.

The World Health Organization says more than 10 billion polio doses have been administered to children worldwide, and the vaccine helped in slashing polio incidence by 99 percent since 1988.

Experts say no vaccine is risk-free.