Nigeria is to launch an ambitious immunization strategy to halt the spread of polio in Africa's most populous country this week. Nigeria has come under pressure to act, following criticisms that it is responsible for the global spread of the crippling disease.

Figures from the National Program on Immunization, says Nigeria has recorded 467 new cases of polio this year, compared with 224 for the whole of last year. Experts say this represents a significant increase in polio infections and a threat to global efforts to wipe out the disease.

NPI Chief Executive, Dr. Edugie Abebe, denies the new initiative to vaccinate about 10 million children below the age of five, was dictated by outside pressure.

"Polio affects Nigerian children and we do not want our children to be paralyzed," said Dr. Abebe.  "So, there are so many reasons why we are intensifying our efforts, not only for polio, but for routine immunization to make sure that our children are all protected against vaccine preventable diseases."

States in the north accounts for nearly all cases of polio in Nigeria. The predominantly Muslim-north in 2003 banned polio vaccination over allegations that the vaccines were contaminated and could make Muslims infertile or infect them with HIV/AIDS.

The year-long ban triggered a steep increase in polio infections and the virus spread from northern Nigeria to many other countries.

Dr. Abebe says Nigeria is gradually reversing the trend and there is now the prospect of eradicating the disease within two years.

"I believe that if we continue the way we are doing, engaging the states and local governments, before the end of the year, we would have made significant inroad into reducing the transmission of the wild polio virus," added Dr. Abebe.  "But I do not see us interrupting till maybe next year. And once we have interrupted and we have beefed up our routine immunization campaigns, yes in another two years, Nigeria can also belong to the other league of nations that can boast of eradicating poliomyelitis."

The new vaccination strategy known as Immunization Plus will involve delivering the oral polio vaccine as part of a package that includes measles, diphtheria, whooping cough and tetanus vaccines as well as bed nets to prevent malaria.

The World Health Organization says nearly 2,000 people were infected with polio worldwide last year, more than 700 of them in Africa.

Polio is spread when people, mostly children under five, who are not vaccinated, come into contact with the virus. The virus attacks the central nervous system, causing paralysis and deformation.