Polio threat originates in Nigeria 2 years after it was banished in most countries

Almost two years after radical Islamic preachers in Nigeria influenced parents against having their children vaccinated against polio for fear it was part of a U.S. plot against Muslims, a Nigerian strain of the virus that causes the crippling disease has occurred as far away as Indonesia.

Many residents in Kano, northern Nigeria's largest city still refuse to have their children vaccinated, not just against polio but against other childhood diseases such as measles. Mustafa Balarabe a 37-year-old father of four said his children wouldn't be vaccinated, citing "the general Western plot against Muslims worldwide" as the reason.

An imam in Kano, 50-year-old Ibrahim Abubakar, was unapologetic and said that the boycott of the polio vaccine in Kano was necessary to fulfil the religious injunction, which tells them to find out about a thing when they have doubts, he does not agree that Nigeria exported polio to any country. He says "if these countries were carrying out vaccinations they should not have had any cases."

The recent cases of polio in Indonesia are the first in a decade and scientists suspect the strain came from Nigeria.

Fifteen other countries where polio had been eradicated have been re-infected from Nigeria since 2003, when northern Islamic leaders led a vaccine boycott, claiming the immunization campaigns were part of a U.S. plot to infect Muslims with AIDS or render them infertile. American officials have repeatedly said there is nothing to the allegations.

Regional governors blocked U.N.-backed vaccination drives for several months, until they were satisfied in May 2004 by the purity of a vaccine, imported, ironically, from Indonesia. The preachers said supplies from a Muslim country could be trusted.

Since immunization restarted in July in Nigeria, polio has been retreating rapidly. Nigeria has seen 54 cases this year, down 40 percent from 94 a year ago, but it still accounts for close to half of cases worldwide.

While some officials with the U.N. World Health Organization say its $4 billion campaign to wipe out polio worldwide by 2005 is still on track, others are pessimistic and express cautious optimism that transmission may not be curtailed until 2006.

Since 2003, the paralysing, waterborne illness has spread from Nigeria to Sudan, where it has infected 149 people. Along with 10 other west and central African nations, it has also spread to Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia, but vaccination campaigns have averted major outbreaks in those countries. Nigeria poses the most serious risk, with its population of around 130 million, many of whom travel widely.

The spread of the disease to Yemen last month was considered by WHO as "a major epidemic," with 22 cases confirmed in a country that had previously been considered free of polio.

Bruce Aylward, coordinator of the WHO's Global Polio Eradication Program, is very optimistic saying that vaccination campaigns which had ground to a halt for almost a year in some countries had been restarted in 2004 with remarkable success mainly because of the support of local political, traditional and religious leaders in backing the campaign.

The reality is though that one-fifth of all Nigerian children aged 1 to 5 targeted by the campaign have not been immunized.

Countries of most concern are Sudan and the Ivory Coast, where civil war and unrest have often prevented vaccination campaigns, Yemen, Ethiopia and the Congo. Many of these countries had been free of polio as a result of previous immunization campaigns.

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