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Three Nigerian states halt polio vaccinations over AIDS fears

In November 2002, officials went door to door administering oral polio vaccine in the Nigerian state of Kano.
In November 2002, officials went door to door administering oral polio vaccine in the Nigerian state of Kano.

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AIDS (Disease)
World Health Organization (WHO)

ABUJA, Nigeria (Reuters) -- Three states in northern Nigeria have suspended a polio immunization program led by the World Health Organisation (WHO) because they feared it spread AIDS and caused infertility, Nigerian officials said on Monday.

In Geneva, the WHO said there was no question about the purity or safety of the vaccine it used and warned that Nigeria was exporting the disease to neighbouring countries.

The mainly-Muslim states of Kano, Zamfara and Kaduna suspended the program last week, said Chinwere Chukwuani, a director at Nigeria's National Polio Immunization Office.

She told Reuters the suspension meant the debilitating disease could spread further in Nigeria, one of only seven countries where the virus is still prevalent and which has the highest number of cases in the world.

"They (the states) said they wanted to conduct tests on the oral polio vaccine to be sure it does not contain HIV and family planning materials," Chukwuani said.

The three states follow Sharia Law, a code of Islamic law which was introduced in the north of Nigeria in 2000, leading to sectarian riots and polarising the country.

Dr Datti Ahmed, president of Nigeria's Supreme Council for Sharia Law, told Reuters: "A lot of documents have come into our possession indicating there are grave doubts and concerns about the safety of the oral polio vaccine being used in Nigeria.

"We therefore called on the authorities to suspend the immunisation program and investigate these fears."

He said he was concerned the vaccine "can give the AIDS virus and that it contains contaminants that are likely to cause cancer in the human body."

The WHO's Dr David Heymann, who supervises its polio eradication campaign, said the WHO had known of the fears about the vaccine for several weeks but such concerns were unfounded.

"We have been doing what we can to convince people that it is totally safe. We are 100 percent certain that the vaccine is pure and cannot cause any of the problems being imputed to it."

Earlier this month, the WHO said polio was spreading from Nigeria to neighbouring countries, undermining attempts to wipe out the virus globally. It has launched an immunization campaign in five other West African states.

Kano state alone has accounted for around a third of Nigeria's roughly 180 reported cases of polio so far this year.

"In some parts of the north of Nigeria, only 13 percent of children have been vaccinated, largely because of the fears about it that have been disseminated," said Heymann. "Nigeria is now exporting the disease."

"It has already cost Nigeria's five neighbours $13 million to launch their own campaigns against it and that could go up to $20 million if it is confirmed that Chad has cases," he added.

Kano state's Commissioner for Health Sanda Mohammed said the immunisation suspension would hold until a report was submitted by a local committee looking into the vaccine's safety.

"The Kano state government, aware of its responsibility to the public, established a committee. The committee is working," said Mohammed. "If it is true that the vaccine is against the people, we will stop it."

The WHO and other organisations launched an initiative to eradicate polio in 1988, when the virus was present in 125 countries. Apart from Nigeria, the disease is still prevalent in India, Pakistan, Egypt, Afghanistan, Niger and Somalia.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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