NIGERIA: Muslim suspicion of polio vaccine lingers on
The success of the global effort to eradicate polio may rest on the outcome of a
week-long tour of India, South Africa and Indonesia by a Nigerian delegation
which has been conducting tests on polio vaccines used for immunisation in
The team comprised health officials nominated by the government and Jama'atu
Nasril Islam, an umbrella group of Muslim organisations in Nigeria, and key
The federal government is hoping this high-powered delegation will these
polio vaccines the all clear. That would help to dispel widespread suspicion in
the mainly Muslim north of Nigeria that the vaccines contain anti-fertility
agents and the virus that causes AIDS.
Polio vaccination fears
Many Muslims in the north believe that polio vaccination is being used as a
ploy by Western countries to inject people with certain chemicals to reduce
their fertility or infect them with HIV/AIDS in order to reduce the population
"We put together a team that incorporates all the stakeholders so that
they will see for themselves and be convinced whether or not the polio vaccine
is safe," Nigeria's Minister of Health Eyitayo Lambo told reporters in
Abuja as the team departed last week.
He predicted that the team would return with good news in time for the next
round of nationwide polio immunisation due between 23 and 26 February.
In October 2003 the governors of three states in northern Nigeria - Kano,
Kaduna and Zamfara -decided to suspend polio immunisation until the vaccines
were investigated and proven safe.
They gave in to rumours and suspicions going back several years which had
culminated in the widespread rejection of polio vaccination by people in the
The word that polio vaccines were contaminated was first spread by some
Their claims assumed greater credibility when they were taken up by the
self-proclaimed Supreme Council for Shari'ah in Nigeria (SCSN), an organisation
led by physician and one-time presidential aspirant Datti Ahmed.
Safety tests conducted
Following the suspension of polio vaccination by the three northern states,
President Olusegun Obasanjo's federal government ordered that tests be conducted
on the vaccines to determine their safety.
Kano, Kaduna and Zamfara states also ordered their own separate
Tests conducted at the National Hospital Abuja and at a laboratory in South
Africa at the behest of the federal government showed the vaccines to be
uncontaminated by any of the suspected chemical and biological agents.
However Kano state government said its own tests showed the vaccines
contained levels of the hormone oestrogen capable of lowering fertility in
Neither Zamfara nor Kaduna states have made known the results of their own
probes. Neither have they lifted their suspension of polio vaccination.
Polio making a comeback
In the meantime, polio, which had been eradicated in almost all of Nigeria
with the exception of Kano state - the last known reservoir - has made a
comeback. Not only in Nigeria, but also in several neighbouring countries where
it had previously been wiped out.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), strains of the virus
traceable to Kano state, have recently been traced to other parts of Nigeria,
including the nation's commercial capital Lagos.
WHO reported that more than 40 percent of the 677 new cases of polio recorded
worldwide last year were in Nigeria.
Recently Nigerian strains of the polio virus have appeared in several west
and central African countries, including Benin, Togo, Ghana, Burkina Faso,
Cameroon and Central African Republic.
This has raised concern among international health experts that the world
might be slipping in its efforts to wipe out polio by 2005.
WHO steps in
In January WHO convened an urgent meeting of health ministers from the main
countries where polio is endemic to devise strategies to ensure that the disease
is in fact eliminated from the globe by the end of next year. Those who attended
the Geneva meeting included Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt and
Lambo pledged to the other delegates that the federal government would ensure
that all Nigerian children were immunised against polio this year.
Since his return, the Nigerian health minister has held meetings with Muslim
leaders and the authorities of the three states that suspended immunisation to
try to restore nationwide confidence in polio vaccination.
This round of consultations led to the decision to send out a delegation
containing representatives of both sides of the divide in the controversy to
conduct new tests abroad.
However, SCSN leaders have warned that they will not necessarily accept the
delegation's findings, dashing hopes that a positive report from its members
might finally settle the argument.
Accusing Obasanjo's government of insincerity on the matter, SCSN secretary
general Nasiu Baba-Ahmed, told reporters on Tuesday that his group "will
not accept whatever result" the delegation brings back.
Baba-Ahmed said the government had "hired some traditional rulers as
members of the team" who lacked the scientific knowledge to tell if the
vaccines were contaminated.
Suspicions about government-sponsored vaccination campaigns.
Some analysts acknowledge there have been incidents in the past which may
have given rise to legitimate suspicions about government-sponsored vaccination
But they also point out that the immunisation as a whole has been politicised
by certain forces in northern Nigeria that hope to boost their public support by
rejecting the polio vaccine.
The fiasco arising from trials of a new meningitis drug by US pharmaceuticals
giant Pfizer in Kano in 1996 is often cited as a legitimate reason for
northerners to beware of the polio vaccine.
Hundreds of victims of a meningitis epidemic, most of them children, were
treated that year with a new Pfizer drug. Many parents complained later that
they had not been told their children were being used as human guinea pigs to
test a new drug which had severe side effects and was not always successful.
Several children who were administered the trial drug still died of
meningitis. The parents of many of those who survived meanwhile claimed that
their children had suffered side effects, including loss of speech and deafness
as a consequence of the treatment.
The victims are currently pursuing a class action suit against Pfizer in the
"A deep suspicion of any mass application of Western medicine has
continued to linger in northern Nigeria since then," Dauda Abubakar, a Kano-based
pharmacist, told IRIN.
"This feeling has only intensified following events such as the
September 11 attacks and the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan," he
According to Abubakar, some radical Islamic groups see opposition to polio
vaccination as a means of expressing their anti-Western feelings. The best known
of these organisations is the SCSN.
Apart from opposing polio vaccination, SCSN has also launched a campaign
against the implementation of some United Nations conventions in Nigerian on the
grounds that they are offensive to Islam.
These include the Convention Against Cruel, Inhuman and other Degrading
Treatment or Punishment, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of
Discrimination Against Women and the Convention Against Child Abuse.
Over the past five years 12 states in northern Nigeria states have adopted
strict Islamic or Shari'ah law stipulating punishments including stoning to
death for adultery, amputation of limbs for stealing and public flogging for
drinking of alcohol and pre-marital sex.
The SCSN believes that implementing these UN conventions in Nigeria would
undermine the application of strict Islamic law.
Ahmed, the leader of the SCSN, told IRIN his opposition to immunisation was
limited to polio and did not extend to vaccination against other preventable
"As a medical practitioner I'm aware of the value of vaccination but my
worry is about polio," he said.
Ahmed said suspicions about the vaccine did not originate in Nigeria and that
he had obtained information suggesting the polio vaccine contained unwholesome
contaminants from the internet.
"All we want is that we should be given vaccines that are not
contaminated for our people," he said.
It remains to be seen how the authorities in Kano, Kaduna and Zamfara states
will receive the results from the latest laboratory investigation of the polio
vaccine and what impact the findings will have on efforts to wipe out the virus.
Polio has already crippled thousands of children in Nigeria.
While many among the ordinary people in northern Nigeria remain wary of the
vaccine, there are still some who are willing to have their children immunised.
"I heard about the controversy but my husband agreed that we still give
our baby the polio vaccine," Amina Abdulkadir, a 28-year-old mother in Kano
city told IRIN.
She said that she and her husband had seen the effects of polio on other
children and did not want their own to suffer the same fate.
But 32-year-old Aishatu Mohammed took a different line. "We will receive
the other vaccines, but not the oral polio vaccine because they said it contains
harmful substances," she said. "Besides with or without the vaccine,
Allah protects his own." -IRIN
[This Item may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.
Copyright (c) UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2003]