Boko Haram cripples polio drive

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By : The Associated Press

Intensifying attacks by rebels are undermining a drive backed by donors including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to eradicate polio in Nigeria, one of three countries where the disease remains endemic.

Gunmen abducted three health workers carrying out vaccinations in Bauchi state in March and killed nine others in attacks on polio immunization centers in the northern city of Kano last year. Police suspect the assailants were members of the radical group, Boko Haram, whose abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls on April 14 sparked global outrage.

“When security problems are there, it’s very difficult in terms of accessibility, but also in terms of mobilization of vaccinators,” Rui Vaz, the World Health Organization’s country representative in Nigeria, said by phone from Abuja, the capital. “There are always fears, logistic problems to reach those areas.”
Donors including the Gates Foundation and Rotary International are spending $1 billion a year worldwide to eliminate the virus, including in Nigeria and the two other countries that are polio-endemic, Pakistan and Afghanistan, a region where Taleban militants have attacked vaccinators.

In Nigeria, the biggest threat to the polio workers comes from Boko Haram. The WHO last month declared polio a global health emergency, less than two years after the virus was driven to the brink of extinction. Global cases of polio fell to a record low of 223 in 2012. The virus resurged last year, with 416 cases reported in eight countries, according to the WHO. So far this year, 103 cases have been reported globally, compared with 77 in the same period last year. Nigeria missed a 2005 target set by the United Nations to end polio partly because people rejected vaccines after some preachers in Nigeria’s mainly Muslim north said it was a US ploy to sterilize followers of the faith. The vaccination effort made some progress after receiving the support of high profile regional Muslim leaders.

The West African country’s four confirmed cases of polio this year were in Kano and Yobe states. The most recent case was reported this week in the Sumaila district of Kano state, according to UNICEF. Nigeria’s southern and central states have been polio-free for years. The intensification of Boko Haram’s insurgency is threatening to reverse that progress. The risk of a resurgence of the virus is also rising as the country enters the rainy season that lasts from mid-May to the end of September, said UNICEF’S Corkum. New outbreaks in neighboring Cameroon have increased the chances of the virus coming across the border, she said.

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