- The number of new polio cases recorded in Nigeria has declined sharply in recent months, but the country still accounts for more than half of all new cases of the disease recorded worldwide, the UN World Health Organisation (WHO) said in its latest surveillance report. Still, 41 cases of polio were recorded in 12 states of Nigeria between 27 February and 16 April.
This represents a decline from 86 cases registered in 23 states of the federation during the same period in 2004. All the new cases were recorded in northern Nigeria, where many Muslim parents have been reluctant to vaccinate their children.
A WHO campaign to eliminate polio worldwide by the end of 2004 was set back by a vaccination boycott spurred by radical Islamic preachers in the mainly Muslim north of Nigeria. They claimed that polio vaccines contained agents that would make people infertile, infect them with HIV/AIDS and cause cancer as part of a Western plot to reduce the Muslim population.
As a result, four states in northern Nigeria suspended polio vaccinations in late 2003. The states of Kaduna, Zamfara and Kano states resumed vaccinations after a few months, but Kano state maintained its boycott for 11 months until July 2004. From Nigeria, polio thus started spreading again to a large number of African countries.
With new vaccination campaigns in Nigeria's north, the trend now has been turned. "There has been a downward trend in the number of cases since May 2004," the WHO said, noting that this largely reflected the resumption of government polio immunisation campaigns throughout the north.
But the UN agency warned: "Although there have been no cases in the south since September 2004, Nigeria is still isolating poliovirus in the northern states." WHO expressed concern that such a large number of infections had occurred during the dry season when transmission rates are lowest.
The health agency stressed that efforts must be intensified to improve immunisation coverage and break the transmission chain before the rains begin in June. "If transmission is to be interrupted in 2005, the quality of immunisation activities must improve in the low transmission season," WHO said.
Health officials in northern Nigeria acknowledged that many children have been missed during immunisation campaigns carried out over the past year as a result of residual resistance to vaccination in some areas.
Abubakar Hassan, an official of the Kano state health ministry, said immunisation coverage was still less than 70 percent in the state, which contains Nigeria's second largest city, Kano. "Our governor [Ibrahim Shekarau] has shown his personal commitment, publicly immunising his own daughter to show the polio vaccine is safe," said Mr Hassan. "We are now intensifying efforts to make sure the message reaches everybody and that every child is immunised," he added.
Polio can strike at any age, though half of all cases occur in children under three. The viral disease causes paralysis, usually in the lower limbs, leaving victims consigned to a wheelchair or forced to use crutches.
WHO said the 41 cases of polio recorded in Nigeria between late February and mid-April accounted for over half the 76 cases recorded worldwide during this period. The world's second largest spread of polio is still registered in Niger, which borders northern Nigeria.
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