The World Health Organization says that fifteen-million children in five African countries are at immediate risk of contracting polio due to a new outbreak of the disease in Nigeria. Polio is an acute viral infection that primarily affects children and can be spread by simple physical contact. As W-H-O physician David Heymann said, "Nigeria is now the country with the greatest number of polio cases in the world. Polio continues to spread within Nigeria to areas which were polio-free and to neighboring countries."
Despite the threat, some Muslim religious leaders and politicians have succeeded in blocking a W-H-O vaccination campaign in northern Nigeria. They claim -- without providing any supporting evidence -- that the vaccines are unsafe.
Some two-hundred cases of polio have been identified in Nigeria this year. Nearly a dozen children in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Niger, and Togo have been paralyzed from polio virus traced to northern Nigeria. Dr. Bruce Alward, the W-H-O coordinator for polio eradication, warns that unless Nigerian authorities act responsibly, much of the world may again be threatened:
"If we don't get this finished in the next twelve months, the virus is going to find susceptible populations in other parts of the world, and it's going to spread, and it's going to spread rapidly. Right now, we have about five-hundred cases in the world. But, in two years, three years, five years, if we do not use the next year to finish it, we will have half-a-million children paralyzed by polio again a year."
In the past, Nigeria has had considerable success with polio vaccination. Dr. Walter Orenstein of the U.S. Center for Disease Control said much of Nigeria, including the large city of Lagos, “was already polio-free for over two years” before the recent outbreaks in the states of Kano, Kaduna, and Zamfara. Now officials in these three northern states have prohibited the W-H-O from vaccinating children against polio. The Muslim clerics and others who oppose vaccination claim that the vaccines contain anti-fertility drugs, or viruses that cause AIDS or cancers. International health experts say the allegations are ill-founded. The United Nations Children's Fund and the W-H-O say that the vaccines have been repeatedly tested and certified as completely safe.
The Nigerian government says it will conduct more tests. Meanwhile, vaccinations in areas where the infection rates are highest are on hold. And with every day that passes, more and more children are being put at risk.