2 July 2004

Nigeria State Reels Under Polio

Lagos — NIGERIA'S mainly Muslim state of Kano which has seen an explosion of the crippling polio virus since banning vaccines last year, said yesterday it could not set a timetable for resuming immunisation.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Wednesday Kano had pledged to restart the campaign in early July, after a 10-month ban during which the virus spread across Nigeria and into 10 other African countries that were previously polio-free.

Kano suspended the immunisation campaign last September when prominent Muslim leaders said they suspected that vaccines supplied by Western donors were adulterated to reduce fertility and spread HIV as part of a US-led drive against Islam.

The state government agreed in May to resume the campaign with new vaccines from Indonesia, but spokesman Sule Yau Sule said samples of the new vaccine were still undergoing testing.

"We cannot give a specific date when the immunisation exercise will resume because the tests have not been concluded. It was supposed take one week but it has now dragged into weeks," Yule said by telephone from Kano.

"We will begin as soon as the result is out. We have already retrained staff and are mobilising people, including Islamic leaders to participate."

The re-emergence of the virus in countries that had been polio-free has been a major setback to a WHO campaign to eradicate the disease - endemic in only six countries in 2003 - by the end of 2005.

There have been 62 new infections in Nigeria in the last two weeks, with a total of 259 confirmed polio cases in Africa's most populous nation.

WHO's David Heymann told a news conference on Wednesday that it was vital to act now because the coming rainy season would create ideal conditions for the virus to spread and could worsen the situation.

Heymann who oversees WHO's effort to eradicate polio, said that international travellers to northern Nigeria, the epicentre of the virus, were at high risk and should ensure they were adequately protected against the disease.

Polio, which afflicts mainly children under five years, is caused by a virus that invades the nervous system and can cause total paralysis or death.

Several other Muslim northern Nigerian states originally joined Kano's boycott, but relented after government experts said the impurities in the vaccines were at safe levels.

WHO's "Kick polio out of Africa" campaign had cut polio infection on the continent to just one case a day last year from 205 cases a day in 1996.

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