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Polio Constitutional Debate Brews in Nigeria

A Nigerian health worker carries vaccination kits at a distribution center ahead of the start of a nation-wide polio immunization campaign, Lagos, February 21, 2011.

A constitutional debate is under way in Nigeria over whether the government can prosecute parents who refuse to have their children vaccinated against polio, or if it has the power to force parents to have their children vaccinated against any communicable disease.

The debate comes on the heels of a resolution by the government of Nigeria's northern Kano state to prosecute any parent who refuses to have their children receive the oral vaccine against the highly contagious disease.

Rights advocates say a provision of Nigeria's constitution protects the right of all Nigerians to privacy, including medical privacy, and give them a right to refuse treatment.

But lawyers representing the country's Primary Healthcare Agency argue that another provision gives government the right to intervene in situations where the health and life of other citizens are at stake, and to administer vaccine on all children without seeking their parents' approval.

The U.N. children's agency, UNICEF, has been pressuring Nigeria's northern states to promote vaccination against polio. But efforts to contain it have been complicated by rumors that the vaccine is harmful to children and by discover of 15 new polio cases in Kano state.