Top Islamic clerics and government officials on Wednesday urged Muslims in northern Nigeria to allow polio vaccinations across the region, from where the disease spread into other countries after an inoculation boycott. Vaccination against the crippling disease is due to begin again Saturday across the heavily Islamic north, where parents fearing the campaign was a U.S.-backed plot to sterilize Muslims prevented their children from receiving the vaccination two years ago.
Many later relented, but polio strains traced back to Nigeria have since been identified in over a dozen other countries. The region's top religious leader, Alhaji Ado Bayero, urged parents to allow vaccinations when they begin this weekend.
State governor Malam Ibrahim Shekarau reiterated that tests on the vaccines showed they had not been tainted.
Fifteen other countries that had been polio-free for years have been re-infected since 2003, mostly from Nigeria, after northern Islamic leaders led the vaccine boycott. They claimed the immunization campaigns were part of a U.S. plot to infect Muslims with AIDS or render them infertile.
Regional governors blocked U.N.-backed vaccination drives for several months, until they were satisfied in May 2004 by the purity of a vaccine imported from Indonesia. The preachers said the supplies from a Muslim country could be trusted.
Since immunization restarted in July that year in Nigeria, polio has been retreating rapidly.
Since 2003, the paralyzing, waterborne illness has spread from Nigeria to Sudan along with ten other west and central African nations. It has also spread to Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. About 50 percent of Nigeria's 130 million people follow Islam, primarily centered in the north, where some states have installed Sharia, or Islamic, law. A.M.