The World Health Organization warns the refusal of three northern Islamic States in Nigeria to immunize their children against polio is threatening to derail WHO's global campaign to eradicate polio by 2005.
WHO's coordinator for the Global Polio Eradication Campaign, Bruce Aylward, warns polio will come roaring back to levels not seen since the eradication campaign started in 1988, if children in polio-infected states in Nigeria are not immunized.
"If we do not get this finished in the next 12 months, the virus is going to find susceptible populations in other parts of the world, and it is going to spread, and it is going to spread rapidly," he said. "Right now, we have about 500 cases in the world. But, in two years, three years, five years, if we do not use the next year to finish it, we will have half a million children paralyzed by polio again in a year."
When WHO began its global eradication campaign in 1988, there were about 350,000 reported cases of polio in 125 countries. Dr. Aylward warns the world could be back where it started, if the authorities in areas centering around the northern Nigerian State of Kano do not resume immunizing their children against polio.
The states of Kaduna, Kano and Zamfara suspended their polio immunization programs over a week ago, claiming that the polio vaccine was contaminated with substances that can cause HIV-AIDS, cancers and sterility in women. WHO rejects these charges. It says the polio vaccine is pure, and the ones used in Nigeria are the same as those used throughout the world.
Officials in these states mounted an investigation into the safety of the vaccine when rumors of their contamination began circulating in August. Dr. Aylward says their investigation is not complete. In the meantime, he says, the rumors continue to spread, and the virus has started to paralyze children in Kano, as well as in polio-free parts of Nigeria and at least four or five surrounding countries.
"Unless this issue is rectified, Nigeria, by far, is placing this whole global goal of a 15-year investment, $3 billion, at risk, if this issue cannot get solved in the next month, basically in time to start immunizing Kano in December," said Bruce Aylward.
WHO reports 473 cases of polio in seven countries. Nigeria accounts for almost half of these cases.
Dr. Aylward says no one should underestimate the seriousness of what is happening in Nigeria. If that country's wild polio virus is allowed to circulate, he says, the whole of sub-Saharan Africa and Asia will be at risk again.