The World Health Organization’s goal of eradicating polio worldwide by 2005 ran into a major obstacle in October 2003 when three Nigerian states suspended polio vaccination over fears that the vaccine could cause AIDS, cancer and infertility.
The largely-Muslim northern states of Kaduna, Kano and Zamfra ordered a stop to a WHO-sponsored vaccination program. Reuters quoted Dr. Datti Ahmed, president of Nigeria’s Supreme Council for Sharia Law, as saying,
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 immunization program and investigate these fears.
WHO representatives dismissed such objections saying the polio vaccine was safe.
Unfortunately, Nigeria is one of only 7 countries where the disease is still prevalent and many children there are not vaccinated. Authorities worry that the disease could expand from Nigeria into surrounding countries. According to WHO representative Dr. David Heymann,
In some parts of Nigeria, only 13 percent of children have been vaccinated, largely because of the fears about it that have been disseminated. Nigeria is now exporting the disease. It has already cost Nigeria’s five neighbors $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.
The government set up a group to test the polio virus, but that group dealt another setback to the polio eradication in January when it issued results claiming it found high levels of estrogen in the polio vaccine which would render those who received the vaccine infertile.
Both the WHO and the Nigerian state dismissed these claims, but WHO’s efforts to vaccinate children in Nigeria appears to have been severely set back which bodes ill both for the children there who are unnecessarily exposed to the risk of contracting polio as well as neighboring states and the rest of the world that would like to see polio eradicated.
Health experts losing battle to promote polio vaccine in Nigeria. AFP, Friday January 9, 2004.
Nigeria orders polio vaccine tests. Associated Press, October 29, 2003.
Nigeria debates polio campaign. Anna Borzello, The BBC, December 22, 2003.