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In Nigeria, avoiding a shot could mean going to jail

In Nigeria, avoiding a shot could mean going to jail

As Bill Gates unveiled his plan this week to rid the world of polio, health officials in the northern Nigerian state of Kano announced their own assault on the disease. "The government will henceforth arrest and prosecute any parent that refuses to allow health workers to vaccinate his child against child-killer diseases, particularly polio," said a health ministry official.

This news, which was announced at the outset of the government’s four-day vaccination campaign targeting six million children, marks a shift in government policy toward immunization programs in the north of the country. Nigeria’s polio vaccination program stalled for more than a year after Muslim leaders raised doubts over the inoculations’ safety in the summer of 2003 — resulting in bans issued by some northern state governments. One leader went so far as to claim that the vaccine was "being used for the purpose of depopulating developing countries, and especially Muslim countries." Other rumors claimed that the vaccines were contaminated with HIV and caused infertility in Muslim girls.

Although it ended in 2004, the immunization ban led to a resurgence of polio outbreaks within previously polio-free regions of Nigeria, as well as in surrounding countries.

This time around, Kano officials aren’t taking any chances on noncompliant communities. Officials, who have not yet detailed the punishment or fines that would meet unwilling parents, clearly mean business: The mandate extends even to medical workers, who will be held responsible for reporting unwilling parents.

The recent vaccination effort in Kano comes after UNICEF Deputy Representative Jacques Boyer’s recent visit to the capital city, during which he highlighted the challenges of eradicating polio in Nigeria, one of only four nations where polio is endemic. Boyer pointed out that while Nigerian polio cases dropped dramatically — from 338 in 2009 to 21 in 2010 — there has been a recent rise, with 20 cases reported in the last six months.

A July 2011 report by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) partially attributed this rise to distraction brought on by the recent national elections. While the report’s authors praised Nigeria’s government for "showing greater commitment to eradicating polio," they also noted that Kano failed to meet indicators of progress and "remains a smouldering risk that could yet undermine the whole eradication effort." With of the weight of polio eradication hanging over them, officials had better hope the threat of imprisonment does the trick.