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Nigeria Targets 10 Million Children in New Polio Eradication Drive

Nigeria is hoping to vaccinate more than 10 million children against the crippling polio virus. Nigeria has seen an upsurge in the number of cases this year.

The five-day vaccination campaign is targeting children in the polio endemic north of Nigeria, where cases of polio have doubled this year.

Polio eradication in Nigeria was severely hampered by a 2003 boycott in the north, instigated by Muslim leaders, amid claims the polio vaccine was contaminated and caused sterility and HIV/AIDS. Nigeria's northern Islamic States resumed vaccinations after a 10-month ban. The dispute may have been resolved but suspicion among Muslims in the polio endemic north remain very high and an impediment to the polio immunization program.

Polio resurgence in northern Nigeria has wider implications for the global campaign to eradicate the disease. The boycott in northern Nigeria has been blamed for the spread of polio in a number of neighboring countries in the past few years.

The World Health Organization says Nigeria accounts for 70 percent polio cases around the world this year, and more than 80 percent of those are in five northern states.

Edugie Abebe, head of the Nigerian agency responsible for mass immunization, says the West Africa country has made significant progress that could halt the spread of the polio virus.

"Our routine immunization coverage has gone from 38 percent last year to 56 percent by June this year," Abebe explained. "So, we are hopeful that by the time we get to the end of the year, we will almost be 65 percent if not more, of our target."

Dr. Abebe says increased public enlightenment and the involvement of community leaders, are helping to break down barriers.

"We have introduced the community dialogue, where there is discussion with communities and the health workers, with district heads in attendance also. And this has worked very well for us, and we are still appealing that both the traditional rulers, religious leaders, the opinion leaders in the communities should assist us to make sure that each child is immunized. Until we are able to reach a significant number of children, we shall not make any remarkable progress," the doctor said.

Polio is a highly infectious virus that invades the nervous system and can cause total paralysis. It can strike at any age, but mainly affects children aged under five.

Besides Nigeria, polio remains endemic in Afghanistan, India and Pakistan.