Nigerian vaccine scare threatens plan to eradicate polio

A serious outbreak of polio in Africa threatens to derail the campaign to eradicate the disease by the end of the year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said yesterday.

A serious outbreak of polio in Africa threatens to derail the campaign to eradicate the disease by the end of the year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said yesterday.

A breakdown in a programme to mass-vaccinate children in Nigeria had led to polio being exported to countries as far away as Sudan in the east and Botswana in the south, the WHO said. The re-appearance of polio in Sudan is particularly worrying because the number of people displaced by two decades of civil war and living without sanitation provide an ideal breeding ground for the polio virus.

David Heymann, the WHO's representative for polio eradication, said the centre of the epidemic was Nigeria's northern state of Kano, where local religious leaders boycotted the oral polio vaccine last year after rumours that it was unsafe. Muslim clerics claimed that the vaccine was tainted and would make women sterile. The rumours said that the WHO's vaccination campaign was a plot to reduce the number of Muslims.

Dr Heymann said that 257 Nigerian children had been paralysed by the polio virus since vaccination was suspended at the end of last year, and many more had become carriers. Five times as many children in west and central Africa have been paralysed by polio so far this year as in the same period last year.

"There is no question that the virus is spreading at an alarming rate. The fact that Sudan is now re-infected is concrete evidence of the need to support a massive immunisation response right across west and central Africa," Dr Heymann said.

At the beginning of 2003, polio was endemic to only two countries in sub-Saharan Africa, but today at least 10 countries are affected, accounting for about 90 per cent of the cases worldwide, he said.

Doctors had hoped that an intensive programme of vaccination could allow the WHO declaring the total elimination of the disease before the end of this year, but that plan is threatened by the rapid spread of the virus.

The WHO wants to spend $100m (£63m) over the next two years intensifying its vaccination campaign. There is a particular drive to vaccinate in Africa before the polio "high season" begins this autumn, when thousands of children will be at high risk of permanent paralysis.

WHO officials have been in discussions with the Nigerian government and local politicians in Kano state to try to allay fears over the safety of the vaccine. The governor of Kano has agreed to resume inoculations using a batch imported from Indonesia, a predominantly Muslim country.

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