Polio victim Abubakar, 6, crawls past his mother’s footprint at their home near Kano, Nigeria. He contracted polio during the 11-month ban on the polio vaccine in three northern Nigerian states.
In 2004, religious zealotry and misinformation coerced villagers in the Muslim north of Nigeria to refuse polio vaccinations and led to the re-emergence of polio just a few years after it nearly joined smallpox on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s list of eradicated diseases.
Polio's Line in the Sand
Polio is a highly infectious virus that cripples those children it does not kill. In 2002, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared it had contained polio to three countries and was close to eradicating it. An unprecedented, sustained and multibillion-dollar global effort had confined the virus to Nigeria, Pakistan and India, and WHO was closing in on victory.
But it didn't happen that way.
A vaccine to eradicate polio became a line in the sand for Muslim clerics. Religious zealotry and misinformation coerced villagers in the Muslim north of Nigeria into refusing polio vaccinations and led to the re-emergence of polio just a few years after it had nearly joined smallpox on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s list of eradicated diseases.
The governor of Kano state, Sheik Ibrahim Shekarau, banned the polio vaccine, saying that the U.N. vaccine was part of a larger Western conspiracy: It was better to lose a dozen children now than to raise a generation of sterile women and AIDS-infected men. Over the next four years, more than 3,000 of Nigeria’s unprotected children were infected with polio, and the contagion spread. By 2006, WHO reported, more than 3,000 children were crippled by polio and more than 20 countries reinfected with the Nigeria strain of the virus.
Eventually, Gov. Shekarau reversed himself, declaring his support for a new polio vaccine. Immunization campaigns are back on the streets, administering the polio vaccine drop by drop.
As Muslim suspicion of the polio vaccine lingers, Nigeria is coping with hundreds of polio survivors, children and now young adults who are crippled or paralyzed, and the continuing Muslim-Christian friction in Africa's most populous nation.