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Ivory Coast Worries About Possible Polio Epidemic - 2004-02-26

Health workers and religious leaders in Ivory Coast are increasingly worried their country could become infected with polio from northern Nigeria where Islamic clerics halted a new vaccination drive this week.

A girl, 18 months old, was recently diagnosed with polio in the region of Duekoue near the frontlines of the Ivorian civil war, which has divided the country's north from the south. This is the first case of polio in Ivory Coast since July 2000.

The United Nations said Wednesday the new case could be linked to a virus from northern Nigeria, which has already spread to Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Ghana, and Togo.

In Chad, the worst-hit of these countries, more than 20 new cases of polio related to the Nigerian virus have recently been detected.

The spread of polio follows the suspension of immunization campaigns in northern Nigeria last year, after Islamic clerics alleged the vaccine was tainted with HIV/AIDS, despite assurances by scientists that these claims were completely baseless.

This week, when an immunization campaign resumed throughout West and Central Africa, four northern Nigerian states refused to take part. Authorities there said they are awaiting the findings of a panel made up of Nigerian scientists, government officials, and Islamic leaders. The team went on a three-country fact-finding mission earlier this month to test the vaccine's safety.

The panel was due to release its findings before the start of the new immunization campaign, but has delayed the report until next month.

The head of emergency programs in rebel-held Ivory Coast for the United Nations Children's Fund, Dr. Alphonse Toko, says it is crucial all of Nigeria take part

He says if Islamic leaders in northern Nigeria can not be convinced to allow the vaccination drives to go ahead, it will create an important reservoir of the virus and with people moving around in the region, polio cases will probably go up among children, rather than being eradicated.

For the vaccination campaign in Ivory Coast, Dr. Toko enlisted the help of Islamic religious leaders, including the spokesman of northern Ivorian imams, Tiemoko Diarra, whose son has polio.

He says Islam has never prevented any type of medical care, unless it contains alcohol or makes a woman sterile. He says vaccinating a child so that he or she can stay in good health has nothing to do with religion.

U.N. and Nigerian officials have been trying to counter the Muslims' opposition with repeated safety tests of the serum and public announcements.