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UN Health Agency Begins Polio Vaccination Drive in Africa - 2004-02-23

The World Health Organization has launched a new polio vaccination drive across West and Central Africa, but several states in northern Nigeria where Islamic clerics allege the vaccine is tainted are delaying their participation.

A four-day polio immunization campaign for tens of millions of children began in seven African countries - from Niger in the Sahara, where the disease is still endemic, to rebel-held areas of Ivory Coast, where one case was recently reported, all the way to the Central African Republic.

Cameroon started the new drive on Friday, while Chad and Democratic Republic of Congo will be joining the next phase that takes place in late March.

But the country that worries health workers the most is Nigeria, where the immunization drive in three northern states, Zamfara, Kano and Bauchi, is yet to begin.

A WHO spokesman, Jones Mpakateni, says Kano is particularly worrisome because polio strains from that area are causing new cases in neighboring countries.

"Kano is the epicenter of the worst polio virus cases that we have in the world and it is the source for most of the viruses which are circulating," said the official. "As long as we do not handle Kano or if we do not immunize the children in Kano then we might be going around in circles."

As the WHO has intensified its drive to eradicate polio by 2005, Islamic leaders in northern Nigeria have alleged the polio vaccine is tainted.

Nigerian scientists and health workers have denounced these allegations as complete fabrication, but the opinion of the clerics has effectively shut down immunization drives in certain areas in northern Nigeria. In several instances, health workers who were trying to go ahead with vaccinations were attacked by dogs, and the program has been suspended.

Fewer than 800 polio cases were reported worldwide last year, one-third of which, health workers say, could be blamed on the vaccine ban in northern Nigeria.

Officials in Kano state say they are awaiting the findings of a Nigerian committee made up of Muslim leaders, the health minister and scientists before giving the go-ahead for this new drive to begin.

The committee recently came back from a fact-finding mission to South Africa, Indonesia, and India to observe tests being made on the vaccine in those countries.

But some influential northern Islamic leaders have rejected the mission's findings in advance, vowing they will continue to fight against the vaccine whatever the results.