- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 19, 2004

LAGOS, Nigeria — African leaders approved an emergency strategy this week to immunize 74 million children for polio in 21 nations, U.N. officials said.

The approval came amid signs that a heavily Muslim state in Nigeria is ready to abandon its boycott of the vaccine, which allowed the disease to mushroom.

Kano, in northern Nigeria, has been the global epicenter of a polio resurgence since its refusal in October to allow children to be inoculated because of persistent rumors the vaccines are part of a U.S.-led plot to spread AIDS or infertility among Muslims.

Kano has finalized a deal to import polio vaccines from a company in Indonesia, state government spokesman Sule Ya’u Sule said Monday.

Kano officials hope to permit children to be immunized in the coming weeks once state government scientists approve the vaccine’s safety, he added.

“When we are sure [the new vaccine] is safe, we will immediately conduct polio immunizations,” Mr. Sule said. “People will be briefed to build confidence that it is safe to use.”

U.N. officials say the boycott has endangered global efforts to eradicate the potentially crippling disease. Polio, after smallpox, would be only the second disease known to be wiped out by man.

The United Nations and Nigerian federal authorities vigorously have rejected claims that polio vaccines are unsafe, pointing to tests conducted by scientists in Nigeria and abroad.

Kano officials say their own scientists found trace levels of a hormone the officials feared could cause infertility in girls. Some Islamic clerics seized on this as evidence the immunization program is part of a U.S.-led plot to cause cancer, AIDS and infertility.

Nigeria’s health minister, speaking in Geneva on Monday, said the federal government recently agreed with Kano on terms to restart immunizations, using vaccines that, Mr. Sule said, Kano officials would “for safety reasons, choose and buy ourselves.”

As the epidemic continues to spread from Nigeria, African health ministers meeting in Geneva agreed on a plan Monday to immunize 74 million children in 21 countries.

The new campaign stretches from Senegal on Africa’s western tip to Chad at the continent’s center, said Bruce Aylward, Geneva-based coordinator of the U.N. World Health Organization’s polio-eradication initiative.

A coordinated antipolio campaign still could eliminate the disease, but failure could result in a “full-blown epidemic” by next year, Dr. Aylward said.

Nigeria has 119 confirmed polio cases, the highest in the world and five times the 24 recorded a year ago, Dr. Aylward said. In that period, polio has spread from 10 to 23 Nigerian states and nine other African nations where it previously had been eradicated.

A $3 billion, 16-year global campaign to eradicate polio has reduced cases of the disease from 350,000 in 1988 to fewer than 1,000 last year.

Among challenges facing antipolio campaigners is raising the millions of dollars to help fund the upcoming 21-country immunization drive, Dr. Aylward said.

In Niger — which reported a tenfold increase in cases for 2003 from the previous year — work is needed to increase the proportion of children being reached by the vaccination campaigns, said David Heymann, head of the WHO’s polio-eradication program.

Polio usually infects children younger than 5 through contaminated drinking water and attacks the central nervous system, causing paralysis, muscular atrophy, deformation and, in some cases, death.

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