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Polio Vaccinations Resume in Nigerian State With One of World's Highest Infection Rates - 2004-08-11

After being suspended for nearly a year, polio vaccinations have resumed in Nigeria's northern state of Kano. New data shows the vaccination campaign is not yet reaching enough children to achieve its goal of eradicating the crippling disease by next year. But officials say it's a good start after a long and acrimonious pause.

The four-day vaccination drive that began July 31 reached 58 percent of the children in Kano state, according to data from the United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF. Eradication requires more than 90 percent coverage. But UNICEF Nigeria spokesman Gerrit Beger says 58 percent is not bad considering Kano hasn't had a vaccination drive in nearly a year.

"We're pleased with the outcome. We think it's a good outcome, a solid start," he said.

Kano's government suspended vaccinations last August after Muslim leaders there accused the United States of contaminating the vaccine in a plot to depopulate the Muslim world. Tests by the World Health Organization, or WHO, showed no contamination. But the controversy continued until vaccine from a WHO-approved factory in Muslim-majority Indonesia was brought in. Kano Governor Ibrahim Shekarau had echoed the Muslim leaders' concerns about the vaccine. Polio officials say his decision to kick off the July 31 drive by personally giving his infant daughter drops of the vaccine sent a powerful message.

Kano has been at the epicenter of a polio outbreak since vaccinations stopped. Nigeria's 430 cases this year are 80 percent of the world's total. And the disease has spread from northern Nigeria to ten other previously polio-free countries. But Governor Shekarau said those days are over.

By the grace of God, he said, Kano will no longer lag behind in eradicating polio from Nigeria and the world.

UNICEF's Mr. Beger says part of the reason the campaign didn't reach more children may be that many people in Kano didn't get the message.

"This is what we hear in the field," he said. "Families were still not aware that the governor had officially said that it can go ahead and Kano is rejoining the campaign."

Mr. Beger adds that the numbers may also have been low because officials didn't have much time to plan before the campaign restarted. But he says vaccinators found only small pockets of families who refused to give their children vaccine because of concerns about its safety. So officials are hopeful that participation will be higher in the next rounds. One way they are working to reduce public resistance is by offering additional medical services. Heidi Larson directs communication strategy for UNICEF. She says campaign workers often hear parents complain that their children are dying of malaria and other diseases while workers come month after month with polio vaccine.

"One of the strategies now is to really look at what are some of the other needs and comprehensive health issues, and really to keep the focus on polio but put it in the context of addressing other needs," she said.

Ms. Larson says Nigeria's polio campaign is now starting to help control malaria, improve sanitation, and provide other health services. She adds that while the campaign in Nigeria is back on track for now, that doesn't mean that troubles are over.

"I think if there's one thing we've learned in all of this, is nothing ever gets put to bed (completely resolved) in terms of any kind of doubts or resistance. We really need an absolutely ongoing, constant dialogue and engagement with the communities."

To that end, UNICEF is working with community leaders, religious leaders, and others to mobilize parents for the September vaccination drives.