Hope For A Healthy World Competition » POLIO’S LINE IN THE SAND

Polio is a highly infectious virus that cripples those children it does not kill. In 2002 the World Health Organization declared it had contained polio to three countries, and was close to eradicating it completely. An unprecedented, sustained, and multi-billion dollar global effort had confined the virus to Nigeria, Pakistan and India, and the WHO was closing in on victory.

But it didn’t happen that way.

A vaccine with polio’s track record became a line in the sand for Muslim clerics. Local leaders of predominantly Muslim pockets in Nigeria rejected immunization efforts for different reasons.

The governor of Kano, Nigeria, warned that the U.N. vaccine was part of a larger Western conspiracy: It was better to lose a dozen children now, Sheikh Ibrahim Shekarau said in 2003, than to raise a generation of sterile women and AIDS-infected men. Over the next four years, more than 3000 of Nigeria’s unprotected children were infected with polio, and the contagion spread. By 2006, the WHO reported, the Nigerian polio strain had reinfected 20 countries across Africa and Asia.

But now, global authorities feel they have one last, best chance to conquer this disease. Governor Shekarau has reversed himself, declaring his support for a new polio vaccine, and President Barack Obama, in his landmark Cairo address to the Arab world, announced a new anti-polio initiative to be undertaken in cooperation with the Organization of the Islamic Conference. As Bill Gates told Congress on March 10, “We will never have a better chance to eradicate polio than we will in the next three years.” Immunization campaigns are back on the streets administering the polio vaccine drop by drop.

As the Muslim suspicion of the polio vaccine lingers on, Nigeria is coping with hundreds of polio survivors, children and now young adults who are crippled or paralyzed and the continuing Muslim-Christian friction in Africa’s most populous and potentially unstable nations.

Polio victim Abubakar, 6, crawls next to the footprint of mother at his family home in the village of Rimon-Gado outside of Kano, Nigeria. Religious zealotry and misinformation have coerced villagers in the Muslim north of Nigeria into refusing polio vaccinations and led to the reemergence of polio only a few years after it nearly joined smallpox on the IDC’s list of eradicated diseases.


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