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Worldwide campaign to end paralyzing disease is close to victory, but outbreaks remain.
Polio attacks the nervous system and can cause irreversible paralysis within hours, and sometimes death. Polio was a major public health threat in the United States — parents were offered polio insurance for their newborns — before Jonas Salk’s vaccine was introduced in 1955.
Adoubou, during the recent door-to-door immunization campaign in Togo, said the father who refused the vaccine for his daughter was Nigerian. In his eight years as a vaccinator, he said refusals are common among Nigerians.
“We can win the fight against polio,” he said. “But there still are reticent parents. We need to continue an education and publicity campaign with these parents to have a successful campaign.”
The Nigerian father declined to give his name and did not want to be interviewed, so it’s unknown if he ever sought immunization for his daughter. Health officials in Benin and Ghana said they had no similar reports of Nigerians in their countries refusing vaccinations in large numbers.
Occasional refusals don’t threaten the success of the campaign — but missing entire towns or villages because of poor planning does, Rosenbauer said.
“That is, and has always been, the primary obstacle to successfully stopping polio,” he said.
Still, there is risk for individual households. A 4-year-old boy in the northeastern Nigerian city of Maiduguri contracted polio with paralysis Oct. 9. The boy “was from a non-compliant household and had never received any doses,” according to the WHO’s weekly data update, published on Nov. 16.
“Those who oppose are playing with the future of their own children, as well as other children in their country of residence,” said Ashok Mirchandani, director of Rotary International’s polio eradication campaign in Benin, which borders Nigeria.
Rotary International helped the world focus on polio in the 1980s. Sever, the former NIH infectious diseases chief, urged the volunteer organization with hundreds of clubs around the world to tackle the issue. The WHO, UNICEF and the CDC joined a few years later after seeing Rotary’s success in raising money and mobilizing volunteers.
The U.S. government gives about $130 million per year to the eradication campaign. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently donated $350 million.
Sever, 78, said he's confident they'll beat polio.
"We're quite close but we're not there yet," he said. "You have to get all the way there, just like smallpox, which is the only other disease which has been eradicated. Until you get everybody under immunization, and the disease stopped, it could flare up at any time and come back again. It's a constant effort to complete this job."
Reporting conducted in Togo and Washington, D.C.