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New Polio Immunization Drive to Start in Nigeria's Kano State - 2004-07-30

World Health Organization officials say the northern Nigerian state of Kano will start a catch-up polio immunization campaign Saturday, ending an 11-month religious-led boycott. The start of the new drive has already been delayed, and there is still opposition from radical Islamic clerics who say the vaccine is tainted.

The reason for the new delay was logistical.

Kano Governor Ibrahim Shekarau was late in getting back from a trip to Brazil this week, forcing the cancellation of a planned ceremony Thursday, which would have restarted immunization in the state. The governor's two-month old daughter will be the first to get a dose of the oral vaccine.

An organizer of the campaign for the Geneva-based World Health Organization, David Heymann, says it's crucial Kano does finally resume vaccinations.

"When Kano restarts its immunization activities, it will be very significant, because Kano is the only place in the world today that's not immunizing against polio," he said. "As a result of not immunizing children against polio, Nigeria now has 77 percent of all the cases for all the children with polio in the world, unfortunately."

The strain of Kano's polio spread to at least 10 other African countries this year, further derailing the WHO-led effort to eradicate the crippling disease by the end of the year. There are about 400 known cases worldwide.

Kano state started its boycott last year. Despite repeated tests proving the vaccine was safe, northern Islamic clerics said the vaccine was tainted with anti-fertility agents as part of a plot to depopulate Muslim areas. Kano's government agreed to rejoin the drive several months ago, after testing a batch of vaccine to be used in Nigeria. The tests showed the vaccine, produced in the mainly Muslim country of Indonesia, was free of contamination.

But Islamic radicals say Kano officials were forced into submission by what they call a western-led propaganda campaign. They say many Muslim populations will continue to shun the vaccine.

Nigeria's spokesman for the WHO, Austine Oghide, rejects criticism that his organization could have done a better job educating, saying the issue of polio in Kano has been more about local politics than public health.

"I think it's common knowledge that there's some political undertone in it, there's some other issues that have come into it," Mr. Oghide said. "So, I don't think it's a question of education or mobilization."

With the state government now on their side, United Nations and Nigerian health officials are hoping to vaccinate four million children in Kano.