Kano, Nigeria In 2003, imams in northern Nigeria fomented a boycott of polio vaccinations, claiming they were a Western plot to make Muslims infertile or infect them with AIDS. The result: The number of newly crippled children rose by more than double the following year, and the disease would soon spread into a dozen neighboring countries.
Now, after another tripling of cases in 2008, a big new anti-polio push is under way in Africa’s most populous country, and this time, some Muslim clerics have made themselves part of the solution, joining community leaders, health workers and the victims themselves in waging the war.
In the dusty streets of Kano, northern Nigeria’s main city, town criers with bullhorns cut through the traffic and crowds, urging parents to take their children to one of hundreds of vaccination centers. Radio and newspapers are full of get-vaccinated ads.
One victim-turned-campaigner is 43-year-old Yusuf Umar, his legs withered by polio, propelling himself on hand-held blocks of wood. “Look at me,” he tells parents of young children waiting to be immunized at a ramshackle Nigerian clinic, just in case any are having second thoughts. “Do you want your child to look like me?”
Umar belongs to the Kano Polio Victims Trust Association, which began with just eight members and eight years later has 2,350.
In the yard outside the trust’s headquarters, sparks fly as welders fashion contraptions to keep the victims mobile — plastic garden chairs on bike wheels that become wheelchairs, flat-ended metal pipes that control car pedals by hand.
After receiving their customized vehicles, association members scoot, pedal and drive around with vaccination teams to field clinics and schools, preaching war on polio.
Their outreach campaign seems to be bearing fruit. While new infections of children hit 788 last year, the World Health Organization reports that the number vaccinated in Kano State during the first half of 2008 rose 26 percent, compared with the same period of 2007.
Still, last year’s spike has raised fears that the disease could be exported again to surrounding polio-free countries and threaten a multibillion dollar effort to wipe the disease from the globe.
The 2003 boycott lasted a year until its hard-line Muslim supporters were persuaded to drop it, and 2004 saw the number of newly crippled children jump from 355 to 792, according to the WHO. Even so, doubts about the vaccine have lingered, and some religious leaders continue to say Islam forbids it, health workers say.
At least one Muslim leader took unprecedented action against supporters of the boycott. The Shehu of Borno, the top Islamic authority in his state until his death in February, last September stripped a chief of his traditional title for divorcing his wife after she had their children immunized.