NIGER: Polio still threatens Nigeria’s neighbour

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Nigeria is ignoring global efforts to stamp out polio, but across the border in cash-strapped Niger officials say they are determined to stop the virus's spread.

Niger last year officially eradicated polio, joining 120 other countries to have done the same since 1988 when 350,000 cases were recorded in 125 countries worldwide.

But Niger’s 1,500km southern border with Nigeria, which accounted for almost 50 percent of the remaining 1,400 polio cases identified worldwide last year, means polio remains a major threat for Niger and beyond.

Polio infected at least three people in Niger in the first four months of this year, with the most recent case confirmed on 16 April by the Pasteur Institute in Dakar, Senegal, according to the Nigerien National Health Information Network.

And Sona Bari, a spokesperson for the World Health Organisation (WHO) secretariat in Geneva, said between 2003 and 2005, “the Nigerian strain of the virus moved all over the world, and often that was through Niger.”

Aissa Moussa, a member of the Nigerien Ministry of Health’s vaccination team, said Niger’s authorities believe they now have a responsibility to protect the rest of the world from Nigeria’s failure to stop the spread of polio.

“We must act as a buffer zone along the border to stop the penetration and propagation of this virus,” Moussa said.

“Niger acts like a firewall of immunity beyond which the virus can’t move,” agreed WHO’s Bari.

Nigeria’s failure to act on polio has been blamed on a handful of influential religious leaders in northern Nigeria who in 2003 forbade their followers from using the vaccine.

The religious leaders said the vaccines were part of a Western plot to reduce the Muslim birth rate by spreading infertility.

After the governor of Kano state in northern Nigeria banned polio immunisation, there was a resurgence of polio cases across 10 African countries previously declared polio free, with strains traced to Nigeria.

However, Bari at the WHO said that Nigeria “does not have serious religious issues” over administering the vaccine now. She said the fact that there is still only a 20-30 percent coverage of polio vaccine is because of a lack of local engagement.

“It’s really a governance issue now, related to the provision of health services,” she said.

The only other polio-endemic countries are India and Pakistan, which are close to eradication according to WHO, and Afghanistan.

A 2005 WHO goal for worldwide eradication was missed. But the UN body's Advisory Committee for Polio Eradication (APCE) estimated in October last year that the goal could be achieved in two years with US $440 million and commitment from the remaining countries.


Source: IRIN
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