Increased Cases Of Polio Reported In Nigeria

Leaders from around the world are renewing their call to eradicate polio. The disease has been eradicated in all but Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. Of those three countries, Nigeria is the only one reporting an increase this year in the number of cases of the disease.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A disease that once ravaged the world, killed countless children, even famously affected President Franklin Roosevelt, has now been eradicated in all but three countries: Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The disease is polio. And at the United Nations last week, Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon met leaders of those three countries, who pledged to step up efforts to wipe out polio entirely.

Which focuses attention now on Nigeria, the only nation on Earth reporting an increase this year in the number of cases of that disease. NPR's Jason Beaubien has been traveling in northern Nigeria. He's been reporting on this issue.

Hi, Jason.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What have you been seeing?

BEAUBIEN: Well, we've actually been going out and seeing people who are still getting polio, children that just recently were paralyzed from polio, which is very rare in the world right now. But it's still happening here in northern Nigeria.

So we've been here trying to look at what the efforts are to combat that. Going around with people who are doing vaccinations, talking to religious leaders about how they're trying to mobilize people. And basically looking at one of the last pockets of polio in the world and what's being done to try to eliminate it.

INSKEEP: Now, we should be fair here. This is not an exceptional number of cases in Nigeria, but still, the number of cases has gone up in 2012. What is the difference between Nigeria and other countries where they have not had cases in years?

BEAUBIEN: Back in 2003, some of the imams in northern Nigeria came out and basically said that this is a plot. The vaccination against polio is a plot by the West to try to sterilize children. And in 2003 it basically shut down what was an ongoing polio vaccination campaign in northern Nigeria. And they've been attempting to recover from that ever since. So the problem in northern Nigeria is deep-rooted. People are distrustful. And it's the place right now that really people are looking at, because it's the only place in the world where polio is increasing in numbers.

INSKEEP: That's a little troubling to hear, Jason Beaubien, because you're talking about the mostly Muslim north of Nigeria and saying that there was a warning that these vaccinations were a plot. There are somewhat related concerns in Pakistan, another country on the list, because a doctor who was doing vaccinations was connected with the efforts to find Osama bin Laden. This could be a problem in more than one country, it seems.

BEAUBIEN: Yes, absolutely. And it's part of the problem facing these vaccinators. Rumors get out and people don't want to bring their children out to get them vaccinated. Some think that it is a plot. Some people think that the vaccines aren't going to work.

We're also hearing up here that people feel just frustrated. There isn't that much polio out there anymore. And on a normal basis, they go to a hospital, there's no doctors, there's no medicine, and yet these people are coming around saying, Oh, you have to bring your child in to get them vaccinated for polio. And people are saying, Why should I? The government isn't doing anything for me. Why should I actually get involved in this campaign?

And so selling this campaign to the people and trying to convince people that this important, that it's actually going to benefit them, benefit their communities, to finally get this disease wiped off the face of the Earth is somewhat of a tough sell.

INSKEEP: Jason, even as the government tries to make that sale, are their religious leaders still saying that people should not do this, that it's part of a plot?

BEAUBIEN: This is probably one of the most encouraging things, is that the religious leaders in northern Nigeria are now really united. And they are coming out and saying you should get your children vaccinated. And some of them are being quite harsh as well, saying you have to get your children vaccinated.

There are other problems, however. You've still got insecurity in the North. You've got Islamist extremist group Boko Haran doing suicide attacks on churches. And that makes an environment where it's very difficult to line up children and get them out for polio vaccination campaigns. But the religious leaders themselves are very much now onboard.

INSKEEP: NPR's Jason Beaubien in Nigeria - the only country reporting an increase of polio cases this year. They've had 90 reported so far. Jason, thanks very much.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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