23.10.03

Nigeria does it again

Today, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has decided to spend millions of dollars to immunise children against Polio in the countries surrounding Nigeria in just three days, to create a 'firewall' to keep the disease from spreading.

Hundreds of thousands of health workers and volunteers are aiming to treat all children in Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Niger and Togo following a fresh outbreak in neighbouring Nigeria. Nearly half of all polio cases in the world are in Nigeria - virtually all of them in the north of the country - and the aim of the current campaign is to halt the spread of the virus across Nigeria's borders. "It would not have been necessary to have this firewall around Nigeria last year, but because the virus has spread to a number of neighbouring countries, we need to launch a campaign to cover 15m children at a cost of $10m," Bruce Aylward, the coordinator of the World Health Organisation's (WHO) Polio Eradication Programme told the BBC.

Ealier in July this year, the WHO announced a campaign to immunise 175 children in 4 countries where Polio is still rampant: Nigeria, Pakistan, India and Egypt. These four countries account for 99% of all Polio cases in the world, with over 50% in Nigeria. However, most of Nigeria's cases come from the north of the country, in the Kano area to be precise.

My mum is currently working with an American NGO, which is tackling this problem. And what she said is simple, the people in that area don't want to their children to be immunised. The reasons? Various. According to the BBC, Islamic preachers in that part of the country say that they have strong reservations after the failure of a drug trial which they say killed a dozen children and left 200 others brain damaged six years ago. They have gone on to discourage the mainly illiterate populace not to have their children immunised.

"I am sceptical and apprehensive about the polio campaign given the desperation and the rush of the sponsors, who are all from the West," a young scholar (who dash am?), Muhammad bin Uthman, told the French news agency AFP. "They claim that the polio campaign is conceived out of love for our children.

"If they really love our children, why did they watch Bosnian children killed and 500,000 Iraqi children die of starvation and disease under an economic embargo?" he asked.

My mother, who works at the grassroots level (she trains the people who go out for the immunisation), says she has been told that the people were indeed told not to have their babies immunised, but for a different reason. She says that the 'elite' has told the people that the vaccinations contain infertility drugs, and that the 'southerners' want to use the vaccine to make sure they outnumber the northerners in the future. (Ironically, my mum is in Kano right now, training the next batch of people for the next immunisation exercise)

There is some truth to the story being peddled by the Islamic preachers. "The Pfizer drug test in 1996 is still on our minds. To a large extent, it shaped and strengthened my view on polio and other immunisation campaigns," said Mr bin Uthman. At the time, the US company had used an untested drug on children to fight an epidemic of bacterial meningitis in the Kano area. Lawsuits have since been lodged against Pfizer in the United States and in Nigeria, alleging that the drug trial was illegal and that it killed 11 children and left 200 others disabled.

Whatever the reason is, I hope that we can see what is happening around us. Maybe when they realise that people in other countries are taking actions, and spending millions becuase of our 'inaction' and 'stupidity'. The WHO action speaks of only one thing, they have left us to our own devices, and decided to help people who want to help themselves.

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