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Polio Surges in Nigeria

ABUJA — Polio is again on the rise in Nigeria and doctors said the entire region should be on alert. An alarming number of new cases have been found in the north, where authorities are already dealing with the unrest caused by the militant group Boko Haram. Health officials warn that even a few cases of polio can lead to a devastating outbreak.

These young men say that polio not only robbed them of the use of their legs, but of their ability to work for a living. They say they beg for money in this Abuja market for food and school fees. (VOA/H. Murdock)
These young men say that polio not only robbed them of the use of their legs, but of their ability to work for a living. They say they beg for money in this Abuja market for food and school fees. (VOA/H. Murdock)
“I believe that getting polio eradication is one of the smartest allocations of resources that the world can make," said billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates. "The world is coming together to do something truly amazing -- protect every single child everywhere from this crippling virus.”

On Thursday in New York, Gates spoke to world leaders, calling for a renewed commitment to polio eradication, saying $2 billion yearly will be enough to wipe the disease off the face of the planet by 2018.

On Thursday in Nigeria, 20-year-old Mohammad Shehu was seated on a wooden slat with wheels. His thin, useless legs were folded underneath him. He pushed himself through the markets, calling for spare change to pay for food.

Shehu said he was one of three boys in his town to get polio when he was about four years old. As he spoke, two friends crowd around him. One young man wais also seated on wooden slat, with pink flip-flops on his hands. The other was propped up on a single good leg and a crudely-made crutch.

The friends said they have never been to a doctor, and they don’t know why their legs don’t work. Health workers say it is undoubtedly polio, a disease that can kill or cripple.

This year, all but three countries in the world are polio-free, but the disease is spreading in Nigeria. There have been 90 new cases reported this year, including 13 since September 5.

Frank Mahoney, Centers for Disease Control Chief Health Officer for Polio Response says these numbers may seem small, but it’s a big deal.

"One of the things people don’t remember, since the eradication program began, the case counts have remarkably gone down so very few people are getting paralytic polio like it used to be," said Mahoney. "And so if the program were to fail, and we don’t eradicate polio the number of children that would get paralytic disease would certainly increase. So that’s the big concern. If we don’t complete the job, polio will come back and there will be many, many cases."

Mahoney said the rise in polio in northern Nigeria is particularly worrying because nomadic life-styles and cross-border trade are common there, and the disease could spread to other countries.

Northern Nigeria has also been struggling with an Islamist insurgency in recent years, and Mahoney says the threat to health workers is partially responsible for the recent surge in polio cases. Health workers also struggle with access to remote, transitory communities, he says.

Polio is preventable with a vaccine, but there is no cure. Spokesperson for the State Minister of Health, Tashikalmah Hallah, says health workers struggle with fear and rejection of the vaccine in many communities, and the government is working to convince people that the vaccine is not dangerous for children.

“There are some that still reject it. If vaccinators approach them, they’ll say, ‘No.’ But on this issue, with the help of traditional rulers as well as religious leaders within the communities, that case of rejection has gone down," said Hallah.

As he spoke, Nigerian leaders and officials, including President Goodluck Jonathan, were in New York, partially to meet with leaders like Bill Gates on strategies to combat the rise of polio in Nigeria, and its continued presence in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

At the same time, the three young polio victims in the Abuja market decided to take a break from begging and use their earnings, in bills worth 1-30 cents, to have a small lunch.