from Africa in Transition

Polio and Measles in Nigeria

April 12, 2013

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Vaccination against polio and measles is opposed by many conservative Islamic elements in northern Nigeria. A consequence is that polio remains endemic; there were 122 cases in 2012, over half of the global total. A measles outbreak in northern Nigeria earlier this year killed thirty-six children and infected over 4,000 between February 16 and March 9. Health officials say this is a direct result of parents refusing to vaccinate their children. While popular opposition to vaccination has many roots, they are primarily political and social in nature.

My colleague at the Council on Foreign Relations, Laurie Garrett, has called to my attention an excellent analysis of northern Nigerian opposition to polio vaccination that was published by the Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN). In addition to a discussion of the shortcomings of some of the earlier vaccination campaigns, the article correctly identifies the Nigerian suspicion of the West as fed by memories of colonialism, questionable pharmaceutical trials by a Western company almost two decades ago, and what many Nigerian Muslims regard as a U.S. war against Islam in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Skeptics in the region allege that a Western motive for promoting vaccination is the intentional decreasing of male fertility through vaccination to reduce Muslim birth rates. IRIN has also issued an excellent analysis of the opposition to the measles vaccination, where the dynamic is similar to that of opposition to polio vaccination. IRIN makes the important point that polio and measles vaccines are often confused in the popular mind.

While there is little in the reports that is new to those who follow polio in northern Nigeria, IRIN’s analysis is the most comprehensive and lucid I have seen available to non-specialists. In my view, however, the analysis may over-emphasize the effects of the U.S. role in Iraq and Afghanistan, and not emphasize enough the northern regional suspicion of the federal government in Abuja, which is a primary sponsor of both vaccination programs. I am also a bit skeptical that, more than fifty years after the British left Nigeria, colonial memories play much of a role.