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Polio Outbreak After Vaccine Ban

A suspected large-scale polio outbreak was reported Friday among children in a heavily Muslim northern Nigeria state that had boycotted immunization campaigns, and local authorities appealed for urgent action to stop the spread.

The suspected outbreak was in Kano state, one of several in northern Nigeria that had shunned polio vaccination drives over suspicions the vaccines were part of a U.S.-led plot to render Muslims sterile.

On Friday, local officials in the Kano state city of Rogo disclosed that they had recorded dozens of suspected polio cases in recent weeks.

Each of 15 districts in Rogo has seen an average of two cases, Nasril Dalha, city council vice chairman, told local Freedom Radio. All cases showed symptoms — fever, fatigue, stiffness in the neck and pain in the limbs — associated with polio, with some already resulting in paralysis.

Dalha appealed for intervention by Kano state Gov. Ibrahim Shekarau's administration.

"If this is not addressed quickly, I'm afraid more children will be affected," he said.

The World Health Organization has sent a team to the area to assess the reported outbreak, a WHO official said Friday, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Unless tests are conducted, we can't say it's polio," the official said.

In September, Shekarau suspended participation in a global immunization program on the grounds that local scientists had discovered traces of a hormone in foreign-made vaccines that they feared could make girls infertile.

Some local Islamic leaders accused the Nigerian federal government of being part of a U.S. plot to kill off Muslims with the vaccines.

The WHO insisted the vaccines were safe, and urged that vaccinations resume to stave off a resurgence of the paralyzing disease.

Kano continued to shun vaccination after the other states rejoined the campaign in March.

Kano state finally announced in late May it had found "safe vaccines" in the heavily Muslim nation of Indonesia and would use those to resume vaccinations shortly.

WHO officials in Geneva said Wednesday they expected immunization to resume there within days; local officials in Kano have not yet publicly committed to a date.

Sule Ya'u Sule, Kano state spokesman, on Friday refused to comment on the reported outbreak in Rogo.

Since Kano suspended polio immunization, there has been a resurgence of cases across 10 African countries previously polio-free, with strains traced to Nigeria.

Nigeria has reported 259 polio cases this year. The figure represents more than 60 percent of the 339 cases reported worldwide.

It accounted for nearly 50 percent of 784 cases reported in a total of 15 countries in 2003.

Six of those countries — Afghanistan, Egypt, India, Niger, Nigeria and Pakistan — are classified as polio-endemic by WHO.

In the peak year of 1952 — before the advent of the polio vaccine — there were 21,000 cases in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The last wild case of polio in the United States was in 1979. Since then, about 8 cases have occurred a year. A few were imported from overseas, but most were a rare side effect of the oral polio vaccine.

In 1994, the Western hemisphere was declared polio-free.

Polio is caused by a virus that enters the body through the mouth and then lodges in the digestive tract.

Paralysis from polio is extremely rare. Up to 95 percent of people with polio show no symptoms, but can still pass the disease to others through their stool or, in rare cases, their saliva.

Another 4 percent to 8 percent of infected people will have minor illnesses. Some 1 percent to 2 percent will suffer more serious illnesses, but recover.

Less than one in one hundred will suffer permanent paralysis, and many of those recover in time. In cases of paralytic polio, between 2 and 5 percent of people die.

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