Nigerian leader defends polio vaccine boycott

Published Feb 26, 2004


Kano, Nigeria - The leader of a heavily Muslim Nigerian state defended its boycott of a 10-nation polio immunisation campaign, asserting the spread of the disease was a "lesser evil" than rendering "hundreds of thousands" infertile with vaccines that some Islamic leaders have deemed an American plot against Muslims.

United Nations officials say a polio epidemic is spreading across Nigeria's borders to at least seven nations where the disease had been eradicated.

Kano state governor Ibrahim Shekarau said on Wednesday he "regrets reports" that delaying vaccinations is worsening the epidemic.

Shekarau has suspended door-to-door vaccinations in Kano since October.

The Kano governor said he judged "it is a lesser of two evils to sacrifice two, three, four, five, even 10 children (to polio) than allow hundreds of thousands or possibly millions of girl-children likely to be rendered infertile."

Tests carried out on the vaccine by his state's scientists last year found traces of hormones that "we want explained," the governor added.

His comments came as Bauchi, another predominantly Muslim state, on Wednesday rejoined the four-day campaign to immunise 63 million children in west and central African countries including Nigeria.

Bauchi had just two days earlier suspended participation in the vaccine drive. Reasons for its apparent reversal were unclear and officials there could not immediately be reached for comment.

The decision left three heavily Muslim Nigerian states - Kano, Zamfara and Niger - banning the vaccines.

UN officials warn the goal of eradicating polio by 2005 is under threat.

The disease, caused by the human poliovirus, has been eradicated in Europe, the Americas, much of Asia and Australia. It usually infects children under the age of five through contaminated drinking water and attacks the central nervous system, causing paralysis, muscular atrophy, deformation and, in some cases, death.

A 16-year, multi-billion dollar international immunisation effort has reduced the number of victims disabled by the disease from 350 000 in 1988 to less than 1 000 last year.

Yet nearly one-half of those are in Nigeria, where several predominantly-Muslim states have forbidden health workers to participate in the programme to distribute the vaccines door-to-door.

Nigerian Health Minister Eyitayo Lambo accused the vaccine's detractors -led by states governed by the country's main opposition party - of manipulating the vaccine boycott "to score political points" against the federal government.

"I want to assure you the government of Nigeria has no hidden agenda against the Muslims. They are also Nigerians and the federal government would not try to kill them," Lambo told reporters.

Shekarau urged UN and Nigerian officials to explain why tests carried out by detractors allegedly showed trace levels of a type of the female hormone estrogen, which some Muslim politicians fear could cause infertility.

UN officials have stressed that, at the levels alleged, the hormones would be absolutely harmless and less than the amount in breast milk, if in fact they were present in the vaccines at all.

Other Muslims have publicly warned the vaccines are part of a US plot to spread Aids and infertility in Islamic states and the developing world.

"We need explanations. People will start speculating and come up with reasons for themselves," Shekarau said. - Sapa-AP

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