[back] Sterilisation

Vaccine Boycott Grows in Northern Nigeria

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KADUNA, Nigeria Feb. 24 Two more states in Nigeria's Islamic north joined a boycott Tuesday of a massive polio immunization campaign, demanding government proof the vaccines don't spread AIDS or sterility as Islamic leaders contend.

Nigeria, meanwhile, announced it would be days before it had results of lab tests meant to prove the vaccine's safety too late to change any minds among Muslim leaders in the four states that are blocking the immunization campaign, due to end Thursday.

"This is an opportunity lost," U.N. Children's Fund spokesman Gerrit Beger said, confirming that Niger and Bauchi states had joined the vaccine boycott pending findings of the government-led investigation.

Northern Nigeria Islamic leaders say the immunization campaign is part of a U.S. plot to depopulate Muslim northern Nigeria by spreading AIDS or sterilizing agents. Northern states maintain their own lab tests show contaminants in the vaccine.

Fourteen million people live in the four states that have blocked the immunization.

The World Health Organization says a polio outbreak spreading from one of the states, Kano, has helped spread polio to seven African nations where it had been eradicated.

The outbreak and vaccine ban threaten a 16-year worldwide effort to wipe out polio globally by 2005, WHO says.

WHO launched the 10-nation emergency immunization campaign on Monday, sending hundreds of thousands of volunteers door-to-door with vaccine to inoculate 63 million children.

On Tuesday, some Muslim families turned away vaccination teams even in states where the campaign has been allowed.

Complicating matters, Nigerian Muslim tradition bans male strangers from entering homes with women and girls, forcing the medical teams to send in girls as young as 14 to carry out the inoculations.

"It is difficult to train these young girls to communicate effectively with parents and vaccinate all children in a methodical way without missing some areas," said Usman Kariko Binawa, a vaccine campaign organizer.

Just outside the northern city of Kaduna, in the predominantly Muslim village of Maraban Jos, health workers scrawled check marks with chalk on the mud and tin houses of families accepting vaccinations. They wrote large "R's" on the those who refused, so they wouldn't be bothered again.

Binta Abdullahi, a 34-year-old campaign worker in Maraban Jos, came out of the home of one Muslim family that had refused to have their children immunized.

"They want to wait for the results of the examinations," she said, referring to the government investigation.

In the nearby village of Barakal Allahu, which is mostly Christian, residents welcomed the teams.

"We are eager. We've seen polio and we don't want it for our children," said Stephen Dogo, 74, after his two youngest children were vaccinated.

In the same village, one polio victim a young wheelchair-bound man with twisted, skinny legs rode past health workers, expressing his approval with the words "God is Great."

Earlier this month, the Nigerian government sent politicians, scientists and religious leaders abroad to witness the polio vaccine been tested in foreign labs.

On Tuesday, the fact-finding team said in a statement it was awaiting test results from labs in India and expected them as late as the end of the month, after the vaccine campaign is over.

The Associated Press obtained a copy of the committee's interim report that ruled the vaccines safe. However, it acknowledged the tests showed "trace amounts of estradiol," a form of the female hormone estrogen the vaccine's Muslim detractors claim could cause infertility.

The unsigned four-page document suggested the hormone may have come from calf blood serum it said was sometimes used to help produce the vaccine.

WHO officials have repeatedly insisted minute amounts of hormones would be completely harmless, amounting to less than what is found in human breast milk.

Nigerian Health Ministry officials could not immediately be reached for comment on the leaked document.

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

The company denied any wrongdoing. A U.S. court dismissed a lawsuit by 20 disabled Nigerians who allegedly took part in the study, but a U.S. appeals court later revived it.