Health Experts are concerned that a big outbreak of polio in Nigeria this year could put the World Health Organization's efforts to wipe out this crippling disease at risk. WHO has made enormous progress since it launched its global eradication campaign in 1988. At that time, 350,000 children a year became paralyzed because of polio. That number now stands at 450. Most of the world now is polio-free. But, that achievement is being threatened by reluctance on the part of some religious, traditional and political leaders in the northern part of Nigeria to immunize all their children against polio. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from Geneva.
At this year's World Health Assembly, the Director-General of the World Health Organization, Margaret Chan, expressed concern that success in eradicating polio could slip away.
"In Asia, type-1 polio - the most dangerous strain of the virus - is today on the verge of elimination," Chan said. "But just as we are seeing record lows in Asia, Africa is witnessing a dramatic upsurge of this strain in the northern states of Nigeria, while previously polio-free countries on the continent are still struggling, struggling to stop viruses that were re-introduced more than two years ago."
In 2003, northern Nigeria stopped immunizing its children against polio. Hard-line Nigerian clerics called for the boycott. They accused Western countries, led by the United States, of contaminating the polio vaccine to render Muslims infertile or infect them with the AIDS virus.
As a consequence, the polio virus spread from Nigeria and reinfected 23 polio-free countries around the world, including nations as far away as Indonesia and Yemen, causing nearly 1500 children to be paralyzed for life.
The Director of the Polio Eradication Initiative at WHO, Doctor Bruce Ayleward, tells VOA the biggest problem in northern Nigeria is that most parents do not get the chance to choose if their children will be vaccinated. He says data show that less than four percent of the population is saying no to vaccination because of concerns about safety.
"So that massive community resistance due to un-reconciled concerns about the vaccine has been largely addressed," Ayleward said. "And, we need the full engagement of the traditional, and political and religious leadership to get all parents convinced now that there is no problem with the vaccine. More importantly that they have to protect their children in the face of an epidemic that they are experiencing right now."
Nigeria has had an outbreak of nearly 190 cases of polio this year. The number is a stark contrast to the 16 new cases in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, the three other polio endemic countries.
Doctor Ayleward says these three countries have done an excellent job in eradicating type-1 polio, the most virulent form of the disease.
"Asia is on track to stop polio and Africa could be rapidly back on track if the right things are done in northern Nigeria by the governors of the key states in the north and the people working for them as they have pledged to do," he said.
Nigeria's Minister of Health, Hassan Lawal, says the Nigerian government is working to solve the problem.
"The Federal Government of Nigeria has planned a number of strategies. First and foremost, social mobilization by disseminating information and campaigns to go to people about immunization. It is very aggressively being done," he said.
Doctor Lawal, says the government is making sure that routine immunization is emphasized and institutionalized.
"And, we are trying to go down to those affected areas and speak in their own language, appeal to the traditional rulers, appeal to the religious leaders," he said. "In other words, I want to assure you so much is being done. The government is responsive and responsible and we want to assure you in no time, polio will be history in Nigeria."
Doctor Ayleward says he believes polio could be eradicated quickly in Nigeria, once the government devises a way to administer the polio vaccine to every child who needs it.
He also warns that the failure by any nation to fully implement eradication strategies could lead to the failure of the global initiative to defeat polio and spark a re-emergence of the disease.
"It will come rushing back as we have seen in the last few years into places that stopped campaigns," Dr. Ayleward said. "And, we will not be able to mobilize the resources again to conduct the massive campaigns needed to properly control and keep polio at extremely low, low levels. That is why we have to finish the job of eradication."
If all goes according to plan, Doctor Ayleward believes Asia will have eradicated polio in the coming 12 to 18 months. He says if Nigeria speeds up its immunization campaigns, polio in Africa could become history shortly thereafter.