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AF-Nigeria-PolioandI 03-23 Web

Muslim clergy join polio fight

In 2003, imams in northern Nigeria fomented a boycott of polio vaccinations claiming they were a Western plot to make Muslims infertile or infect them with AIDS.

The result: the number of newly crippled children rose by more than double the following year, and there were fears that the disease would spread into a dozen neighboring countries.

Now, after another tripling of cases in 2008, a big new anti-polio push is under way in Africa’s most populous country, and this time, some Muslim clerics have made themselves part of the solution, joining community leaders, health workers and the victims themselves in waging the war.

The 2003 boycott lasted a year until its hard-line Muslim supporters were persuaded to drop it, and 2004 saw the number of newly crippled children jump from 355 to 792, according to the WHO. Even so, doubts about the vaccine have lingered and some religious leaders continue to say Islam forbids it, health workers say.

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At least one Muslim leader took unprecedented action against the boycott-supporters. The Shehu of Borno, the top Islamic authority in his state until his death in February, last September stripped a chief of his traditional title for divorcing his wife after she had their children immunized.

"His excellency has zero tolerance for those who hinder the fight against polio," his spokesman, Usman Chiroma, said.

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