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Nigeria Still Fighting False Rumors About Polio Vaccine

The World Health Organization has spent $5 billion over the last 20 years to immunize more than two billion children around the world against polio. Yet the deadly and crippling disease still poses a risk in four countries, including Nigeria which accounts for more than 50 percent of new cases. VOA recently visited the northern Nigerian state of Kano where polio is common and officials struggle to convince the local population to immunize their children.

When Muhammad Adamu was only a year-old he developed a high fever and was later diagnosed with polio. He now has weakened muscles and paralysis in his legs. His mother Maryam Hajia says it is difficult to accept that her 5-year-old son's condition is permanent.

"I am really disturbed and worried over the present situation of my child, a polio survivor now," she said.

Muhammad Adamu is one of a growing number of children with polio in Kano. In the nearby village of Gazawa, nine children have the disease. Last year Nigeria reported more than 790 cases, the largest outbreak of polio in the world. Open sewers and poor sanitary conditions are conducive for the polio virus. But many parents in northern Nigeria also refuse to immunize their children.

The World Health Organization attributes the increased cases in northern Nigeria to an earlier decision by authorities in the heavily Muslim region to boycott the polio immunization program.

In 2004 false rumors and allegations spread throughout the Northern Nigerian state of Kano that the polio vaccine contained birth control drugs as part of a secret western plot to reduce population growth in the Muslim world.

While the boycott lasted only 11 months and the Kano government now supports immunization efforts, doubts about the vaccine linger. Gazawa village chief Ibrahim Mamman explains why local leaders rejected immunization efforts.

"We stopped cooperating with the immunization people because of fear the vaccine contained birth control," he said.

Local leaders are now organizing public meetings like this one in the village of Gawo to educate local communities about the disease and the vaccine. VOA health reporter Sani Malumfashi produced a short documentary on polio that is shown at these gatherings.

The documentary incorporates dramatizations, medical information and testimonials by political and religious leaders.

"The main motive of doing the documentary and a drama program is to bridge the communication gap, to correct the misinformation, give the ordinary people the correct information for them to make an informed decision regarding taking polio vaccine as the only option," explains Malumfashi.

At the end of this education session Malumfashi asked the villagers if they would now cooperate with the polio immunization program. The response was overwhelmingly positive. But Dr. Lola Mabugunje with Compass, a Nigerian health education organization, says the Nigerian government must go beyond encouraging compliance and compel all Nigerians to immunize their children.

"We don't have a carrot and stick method. I call it carrot and stick. If I don't do this, what happens to me? No, it is not in place. Until that is generalized in this country, we may not move anywhere on immunization," said Dr. Mabugunje.

Without forced compliance, she adds, polio will continue to afflict Nigeria and potentially spread beyond its borders.