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Nigeria Pushes to Eradicate Polio, Vaccinates Millions of Children

Nigerian health workers Saturday began house-to-house immunization of 25 million children under the age of five in a new drive to halt the spread of polio.

Polio jingles fill up the airwaves as thousands of men and women in green and white aprons fan out across Nigeria administering polio vaccines to those under the age of five years old.

In a calamitous setback in mid-2003, Nigeria's northern states halted the vaccination campaign for a year after rumors swept the region that the vaccine contained the AIDS virus or was part of a Western plot to sterilize Muslim girls. Within a couple of years, scores of once polio-free countries have had outbreaks traceable to Nigeria.

Aminu Ahmed, a polio victim, heads the polio victims association in Kano, a city hit particularly hard by the virus. "If I reach your house, first of all I will ask you 'do you like your son to be like me?' If you say yes we are leaving you to go. If you say no okay give your children to [be] immunized. You survive your children because you don't know the time polio will 'arrest' your son," he said.

Despite efforts of people like Ahmed, polio rates are climbing in Nigeria. So far this year, Nigeria has had 30 cases of polio-induced paralysis, compared to 19 in the first two months of 2008.

The Rotary Club is one several polio partners. Its northern Nigeria district head Gordy Antai says some health workers are not sufficiently committed to polio eradication. "We really need to get the political will. We need to talk to the government so that we can ensure that the right people are sent to the field. Because some people are complaining they are not prepared, some people are complaining they are tired and so on," he said.

Polio vaccinations in Kano resumed in 2004 after clinical trials in and outside Nigeria proved the vaccines were safe. But many people are still skeptical and refuse to administer polio vaccines to their children.

A Kano resident, Isiaku Gumawa, says the high priority for polio innuculation to the detriment of more pressing diseases has contributed to the rejection of polio vaccinations in parts of the north. "I will prefer they take up malaria and sometimes Guinea worm, and one of the sicknesses which is very common and in every home. If the general public realizes that what is disturbing them has been tackled, what they don't know they will give attention because they have seen the benefits. Now everybody has malaria, they didn't care about malaria but they come to polio, which is not in every home. In my opinion, this is the mistake the authorities made," he said.

Generally, an increased number of people are now willing to allow their children take polio vaccines as a result of sustained vaccination campaigns. Even radical Muslim clerics, who led the 2003 boycott, are now campaigning for the acceptance of polio vaccination. Ibrahim Mohammed is the Jumat Imam of Karfo community in Kara Local Government Area of Kano state. Speaking through a translator, he said "He uses a lot of strategies to inform people, especially the stand of taking vaccines in Islam; He is able to bring out the Koran and the Prophet's book which we call Hadith. He is able to make sure people realize what Islam says about prevention. And then he writes sermons during Friday's prayers to speak to people that attend the mosque about the importance of preventing polio."

The immunization campaign in Nigeria is part of a $67 million United Nations-supported program spanning eight other countries in the region: Benin, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Mali, Niger and Togo.

U.S. billionaire Bill Gates was in Nigeria recently to announce a $50 million grant to support polio eradication.

A veteran polio fighter in Kano, Dr. Lola Mobugunje, says with the availability of more funds and the commitment of campaigners polio eradication will happen sooner than later. "I am very positive that we will see the end of polio eradication the way it was done to small pox. It is a matter of time. We will see the end of it," he said.

Poliomyelitis is a highly infectious disease mainly affecting young children. It is caused by a virus transmitted through contaminated water or food.

The World Health Organization has listed Nigeria, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan as the only polio-endemic countries in the world.