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Polio vaccine meets resistance in Nigeria

KADUNA, Nigeria -- Bearing droppers of polio vaccine and promises of its safety, hundreds of thousands of volunteers fanned out across 10 African nations yesterday in a drive to stop a polio outbreak spreading from Nigerian states that have banned the vaccine.

Islamic leaders in three northern Nigerian states have blocked polio inoculations since October, calling them part of a US plot to spread AIDS or infertility among Muslims.

One of the states, Kaduna, lifted the ban on the eve of yesterday's emergency campaign, but even here, many Islamic neighborhoods turned away the volunteers with their iceboxes of vaccines, drops administered orally.

"People will resist it," declared Nafiu Baba Ahmed, secretary general for Nigeria's Supreme Council for Sharia, or Islamic law.

"We are concerned about the safety of our children," said Ahmed, speaking from his home in an Islamic neighborhood of Kaduna city. "They wouldn't dare come here."

Muslims in Nigeria's arid north have become wary of vaccine initiatives since 1996, when families in Kano state accused New York-based Pfizer Inc. of using an experimental meningitis drug on patients without fully informing them of the risks.

The company denied any wrongdoing. A US court dismissed a lawsuit by 20 disabled Nigerians alleged to have taken part in the study, but a US appeals court later revived it.

The World Health Organization says the ban on the vaccine has spread the crippling disease into seven African nations where it had been eliminated, and endangers a 16-year-effort to eradicate polio globally.

Until the Nigeria-based outbreak, endemic polio had been narrowed to six nations, including three -- Nigeria, Niger and Egypt -- in Africa. Global cases had been reduced from 350,000 in 1988 to fewer than 1,000 last year.

The outbreak helped trigger the emergency campaign in Nigeria, Ghana, Togo, Niger, Cameroon, Benin, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Ivory Coast, and Chad.

In Ivory Coast, women in the Muslim-Christian rebel-held city of Bouake lined up by the dozens under the scorching sun to get the vaccine for babies strapped to their backs or toddlers holding their hands.

Ivory Coast this month saw its first polio case since 1999. Yesterday's immunizations were the first in the country in two years because of a 2002-2003 civil war.

In Nigeria, health workers made no attempts to launch the campaign in the two states -- Kano and Zamfara -- that banned immunizations.

After months of prohibiting door-to-door vaccinations, Kano state officials last week withdrew stocks of vaccine from hospitals where patients had received inoculations upon request, UN officials confirmed yesterday.

In Kaduna state, response was mixed to the door-to-door campaign.

In Christian neighborhoods, some parents rushed out of houses dragging toddlers to receive the vaccine. Mothers pried open the jaws of wailing children. Volunteers squeezed out the vaccine, drop by drop, onto tongues.

"We are Christians. We like it," said 40-year-old Ruth Yusuf, holding out her 3-month-old son, Jerry, for vaccine. "It is only Muslims that don't like it."

In Tudun Wada, an Islamic neighborhood of Kaduna, an Associated Press photographer saw one mother agree to the immunization for her children. Another, cooking pancakes in front of her house, simply said, "No." The vaccination team moved on.

Residents of another predominantly Islamic neighborhood, Rafin Guza, turned away the volunteers as senior UN officials watched.

"The vaccines are safe," health official Lawal Abubakar said, trying to persuade families to allow Rafin Gaza's 1,000 children to be immunized. "The controversies about it are not true controversies. But polio is real, and it can cripple their children."

Residents "told me I was spreading AIDS," said volunteer Ridwan Yusuf, a 20-year-old student who was blocked from immunizing dozens of children in Tudun Wada.

Kano state officials say lab tests they carried out last year found female sex hormones in polio vaccine -- proof, they say, of contamination.

UN and Nigerian officials insist the vaccines are safe. WHO says the boycott threatens a multibillion-dollar effort to eradicate polio by 2005. Polio, after smallpox, would be only the second disease known to be wiped out by man.

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