Africa becomes polio free?

Maryn McKenna shares the excellent news that midnight August 11 marked one full year with no cases of polio reported in the whole of Africa. It takes three consecutive years of absence for a region to be designated as polio-free but this step is significant nonetheless, given the opposition by Muslim imams in a few countries that nullified the World Health Organization’s goals of making the entire globe polio-free by the year 2000,

It took a little longer than they planned. And in the many setbacks that have kept the world waiting for polio’s death certificate, Africa, and especially Nigeria, played a significant role. There’s an archive of of about 20 posts at my old blog tracing the recent history of polio eradication’s struggles, but here’s the Nigeria piece of the story: In 2003, Muslim religious leaders in Kano state in northern Nigeria began preaching against polio vaccination campaigns, contending that the drops had been deliberately contaminated in a plot to sicken and sterilize children.

(The reasons for the suspicion were complex, but an important factor was Nigerians’ distrust of Western medical interventions, based on a meningitis vaccine trial that took advantage of them. A fictionalized version of that story is told in the book and movie The Constant Gardener; I told the actual story at WIRED in 2011.)

The imams’ opposition triggered massive vaccine refusal, a devastating setback because at the time, Nigeria accounted for half of the world’s polio cases. Shortly afterward it became responsible for many more, because new infections in Nigeria led to a wave of polio cases across Africa, reseeding the disease into countries that had chased it out. So many children went unvaccinated that when a random vaccine-virus mutation occurred, creating an infectious strain, it ripped through Nigeria and border countries in a second epidemic. And in 2011, an independent monitoring board set up to investigate the eradication campaign’s problems excoriated Nigeria (along with India, Afghanistan and Pakistan) for corruption and nonperformance that were keeping the vaccine from needy kids.

But Nigeria managed to turn things around and in a dozen years has made great strides in learning how to overcome religious objections by carefully cultivating the trust of influential people. But the battle is not yet over because religious obscurantism seems to be the one thing that never dies.

Keeping Nigeria and the rest of Africa free from polio will not be easy. Nigeria is the continent’s most populous country; more than 5 million children are born there each year, and vaccinating them could be disrupted by militant attacks or by renewed loss of trust. Last week, for instance, Kenya’s Conference of Catholic Bishops urged followers to boycott the vaccine, making the same claims of contamination and bad intent that were made in Kano 12 years ago.

But let’s celebrate this anniversary for the good news it undoubtedly is.


  1. kevinalexander says

    It’s not surprising that the Catholic Bishops would try to block it. There is a strong undercurrent of sadism in Roman Catholicism so that they would see polio as a gift from god that we shouldn’t refuse.
    I remember the first polio vaccine. I got it as a small child but I can still remember the debate over the morality of it.

  2. jockmcdock says

    Kevin et al,

    I was born in Glasgow in 1950. Polio was an absolute fear at the time. I went to a Catholic school and got the vaccine at about age 7 (plus-minus). From memory, everyone was very much in favour of it. We got it at school.

    Different times? Different countries?

  3. ianeymeaney says

    And there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth in the Schneider, McCarthy and Carrey households.

  4. Jenora Feuer says

    From Respectful Insolence, the Kenyan government slapped them down pretty hard, and it looks like the Catholic Bishops were invited to help test the vaccine but basically refused to be involved in the testing so that they could complain about not being involved later. From one of Liz Ditz’ comments:

    As it turns out, the polio drive in Kenya was postponed from an earlier date, because of the tetanus manufactroversy. In the ensuing months, evidently there were many meetings with stakeholders (Including the KCB) to make the August 1-5 mass polio campaign a success.

    So the hissy fit the KCB pitched on Tuesday was a last-minute power-play, or something.

    On Wednesday July 28, Health Cabinet Secretary James Macharia told the KCB in no uncertain terms to back off and shut up:

    WHO country director Custodia Mandlhate accused the church of “lying and being hypocritical” while Medical Services Director Nicholas Muraguri said the campaign would go on despite the church’s resistance.

    He said the vaccine had been distributed to 8,000 health centres in readiness for August 1 to 5 immunisation.

    Dr Muraguri accused the church of dishonesty, saying it was among the 200 stakeholders consulted before the immunisation was announced.

    “Many meetings have been held after we postponed the campaign five months ago but we reached a point where we had to make a difficult choice to ensure children are not exposed to polio. We will not allow three people to stop this campaign,” he said.

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