11 February 2013

Nigeria: Polio Eradication - a Major Setback

AFGHANISTAN, Nigeria and Pakistan are the three countries where polio has not been eradicated. The danger they pose to the rest of the world is the source of concern about eradicating the virus that paralyses people within minutes of infection - children are highly at risk.

Friday's attack that killed nine health workers - women - who were administering the polio vaccine drives in Kano, is a big blow to the anti-polio campaign. The attack was executed at two locations and may be borrowing from similar attacks in Pakistan.

Two attacks in Pakistan last December and in January killed 16 health workers who were administering polio vaccine. In some parts of Nigeria, as in Pakistan, there are religious beliefs that vaccine could have adverse health effects.

Northern Muslim leaders, in 2003, opposed polio vaccination, saying it could cause infertility and AIDS. Their campaign against the vaccine, which lasted 11 months, time they said they needed to investigate the vaccine, was blamed for a resurgence of the disease in parts of Nigeria and other African countries where polio had been eradicated. Polio, a virus that attacks the nervous system, cripples thousands of people every year. As a result of vaccination, it is now only endemic in Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan.

Intervention of traditional rulers saw resumption of vaccinations in the North, but at no time did the resistance take the tragic dimensions just witnessed in Kano.

How would the vaccinations continue in the midst of security threats? If health centres could be attacked, how safe would health workers feel making home visits to administer vaccines?

Global Polio Eradication Initiative, GPEI, rates Nigeria with 121 as having the highest number of new cases, more than double Pakistan's 58 in Pakistan and over thrice the 37 cases in Afghanistan.

International concerns about the spread of polio has resulted in a recommendation by the

Independent Monitoring Board, IMB, which monitors the GPEI on behalf of the World Health Organisation, WHO, that anyone from Afghanistan, Nigeria or Pakistan should be required to undergo the polio immunisation before they can cross borders.

"We recommend that the International Health Regulations Expert Review Committee urgently issue a standing recommendation by May 2013 that will introduce pre-travel vaccination or vaccination checks in each of these countries until national transmission is stopped, IMB said in a report last November.

"No country should allow a citizen from any endemic polio state to cross its border without a valid vaccination certificate." The report was referring to Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan.

The Kano attacks are threats to the future of millions of children who could be denied a paralysis-free life. Government should nip the threat before it spreads.

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