Resistance by some northern Nigerian Muslim leaders to allow polio vaccinations is threatening a U.N. goal to eradicate the disease by next year. U.N. health officials are alarmed over reports that polio, instead of being brought under control, is spreading in Nigeria and to neighboring countries.
World Health Organization officials are blaming Islamic rulers in northern Nigeria for the setback in the polio eradication campaign.
Nigerian human rights campaigners blame the central government for doing too little to prevent the local authorities from controlling the vaccination drive.
Immunization drives were halted last year in northern Nigeria, after Islamic clergy alleged the vaccine is contaminated to cause infertility, cancer, and HIV/AIDS. The use of the vaccine, the clerics claim, is part of a plot to depopulate developing countries.
A committee appointed by the northern Nigerian state of Kano says it confirmed these allegations. But the WHO and many Nigerian doctors who have conducted tests of their own strenuously deny this, and say the vaccines are safe.
Nigeria's World Health Organization spokesman, Austine Oghide, says he still hopes a new vaccination drive, due to begin next month, can take place throughout the north.
"For now, apart from the committee set up by the Kano state government, I am aware that all the other committees that have been set up variously - either by the Sharia Council, or the Islamic Council, or government, the Kaduna state one - all those have said that the vaccines are safe, that the vaccines do not contain any other things that the allegations have been made about," he said. It is only the one in Kano that I understand did say that it contained some anti-fertility agents. But, of course, we know the government of Kano has not come out with a definite decision and stance, and I do not think that that is going to affect immunization.
Human rights campaigner Nasir Abbas, from the Nigerian group, Civil Rights Congress, says the clergy in the north has mounted its anti-vaccination campaign for political gains. He says Nigeria's central government should step in to counter the influence of the clergy with a campaign of its own.
He says the central government has sent a few dignitaries to the north on short visits, but that is not enough.
"The government should just have gone out and, using community based organizations, or the civil societies, to come all out on the sensitization campaign to say, 'OK this is what the vaccine is all about.' And it has to be in a language understood," he said.
According to WHO figures, there were about 350,000 cases of polio reported in 1988, when the eradication campaign started. That number dropped to 667 cases last year.
But the World Health Organization warns the numbers went up in Nigeria last year, and new cases are being reported in neighboring countries where the disease had been wiped out.