GENEVA – The United Nations launched a massive polio immunization campaign across Africa on Friday, aiming to undo the regionwide effects of a vaccine boycott in Nigeria.
More than a million aid workers plan to immunize 80 million children in 23 countries of sub-Saharan Africa, said Dr. David Heymann, who is overseeing the World Health Organization’s effort to eradicate polio.
“Africa was almost polio free at this time last year,” Heymann noted.
However, a vaccination boycott in Nigeria – Africa’s most populous nation – spawned a resurgence of the crippling virus across Africa, infecting children in formerly polio-free countries and threatening efforts to wipe out polio by 2005.
“This is a tragedy because these countries were polio free, except two,” said Heymann, referring to Nigeria and Niger.
Extremist Islamic clerics had led the boycott, claiming the polio vaccine was part of a U.S.-led plot to render Nigeria’s Muslims infertile or infect them with AIDS. Vaccination programs restarted in Nigeria in July, after local officials ended their 11-month boycott, but the latest campaign is the first Africa-wide attempt to undo the damage.
Local and international health workers are now going door-to-door in an effort to immunize every child under age 5 across west and central Africa as well as war-ravaged Sudan.
There have been 786 confirmed cases of polio worldwide so far this year and the disease is now endemic in six countries: Afghanistan, Egypt, India, Niger, Nigeria and Pakistan.