Two more states in northern Nigeria have refused to participate in a global vaccination campaign to eradicate polio which kicked off this week.
However, one state has lifted the suspension of polio vaccinations which it imposed last year.
A total of four staunchly Muslim states in Northern Nigeria are now blocking the immunisation programme, casting doubt over a plan to eradicate the disease worldwide by the end of the year.
Bauchi and Niger states said they had joined Kano and Zamfara in banning health officials from carrying out a door-to-door polio vaccination programme for children under five that started on Monday.
The governments of all four states have voiced fears that the vaccines may be contaminated with anti-fertility hormones.
“We have set up a high powered technical committee of professionals, they carried out a sample test and we discovered some of these contaminants,” Governor Ibrahim Shekarau of Kano said on state television on Saturday.
“We have told the federal government that Kano will not allow that administration of the vaccine until we are convinced it is safe,” he continued.
Mahmud Abdullahi, a spokesman for the Niger State government echoed these fears. "We have always been in the forefront of immunisation, but we have decided to hold on for a while to be on the safe side until investigation of the vaccines is concluded," he said.
Health officials in Bauchi state in northeastern Nigeria said they had been asked to halt polio immunisation by the state government, but Bauchi's Commissioner for Health, Ilyasu Muhammed would neither confirm or deny the ban when asked by IRIN to comment on the reports.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) together with other international partners and governments, is organising the global campaign that hopes to see polio eradicated by the end of 2004. This final vaccination drive is the culmination of a US$ 3 billion campaign spanning 15 years.
The four states are acting on fears spread by some preachers and Muslim activists in Nigeria’s mainly Islamic north that polio immunisation may be part of a Western plot to reduce the country's Muslim population.
Kano State has been identified as the last reservoir of the wild polio virus in Nigeria. Its continued presence there threatens to undermine successes in eradicating the disease elsewhere.
However, Kaduna State, which was one of three Nigerian states to suspend polio vaccination in October last year, said on Sunday it was lifting the ban and would resume immunising children against the disease.
Earlier this month, President Olusegun Obasanjo sent a delegation of Muslim leaders and health officials from Kaduna, Kano and Zamfara states to India, Indonesia and South Africa. There the delegation was able to test samples of the polio vaccine being made there for use in Nigeria to allay fears they were unwholesome.
Health Minister Eyitayo Lambo said on Sunday that its findings would be published this week, but the federal government would forge ahead with immunisation in states that were willing to participate in the campaign.
The debate over the safety of the polio vaccine has persuaded some parents in the north to refuse to allow their children to take the orally administered vaccine, even in states where the local authorities have given the green light to immunisation.
However, government officials said most parents we readily presenting children for vaccination.
Yusuf Bala Usman, a lecturer at Ahmadu Bello University at Zaria in Kaduna State, accused certain people in the north of politicising polio immunisation for certain political ends.
He said tests should have been conducted on Nigerians born since 1964 when the first polio immunisations were held to determine if their fertility was impaired in any way.
“I have a daughter who is a polio victim,”Usman told IRIN. “Let’s not allow politics to ruin our people’s lives because we are not the only Muslims in this world.”
Polio can strike at any age, although half of all cases occur in children under three. The disease causes paralysis, usually in the lower limbs that is almost always permanent. Most polio victims are condemned to spend the rest of their life in a wheelchair or hobbling on crutches.
In the most severe cases, polio can lead to death by asphyxiation.
Immunisation coverage is highest in the predominantly Christian south of Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country with more than 120 million people.
In the port city of Lagos, which has an estimated population of 15 million, 25,000 health officials were put to work in an effort to break a vital regional transmission link for the polio virus.
“Lagos has a very large population, with heavy traffic of people in and out,” Omowunmi George, the Chief Health Educator for Lagos State, told IRIN.
“It is a place where people can easily import the virus and from here visitors from other West African countries can easily pick it up and distribute across the region as well,” said George.
Charles Korir, the polio consultant of WHO in Lagos agreed, describing Nigeria's commercial capital “as a critical point" in efforts to prevent the re-introduction of the wild polio virus in other parts of West and Central Africa where it has already been virtually eradicated.
Korir said 12 cases of polio had been detected in Lagos over the past year, the most recent being just two weeks ago.
International health officials said polio variants traced to Kano had recently caused new infections in seven West and Central African countries where the virus had been eradicated in the past.
On Friday a one new polio case was reported in Central African Republic.
And in Benin, which borders Nigeria to the west, two new cases of polio were reported recently after the children’s parents returned from a trip to Nigeria.
Niger, a staunchly Muslim country to the north of Nigeria, is carrying out a synchronised vaccination programme covering the entire country. President Mamadou Tanja has spoken out publicly to quell possible concern over the safety of the vaccines.
He has particularly urged parents of children living near the 1,500 km border with Nigeria to get their children immunised.
WHO hosted a meeting of health ministers in Geneva last month to map out a strategy for eradicating polio in the last remaining countries where the disease is still endemic. Afghanistan, Egypt, India, Niger, Nigeria and Pakistan have the world’s last remaining reservoirs of polio.
As part of this final push, 10 West African countries are participating in a programme, which began on Monday, to vaccinate 10 million children.