John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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Polio and Measles in Nigeria

by John Campbell
April 12, 2013

Local health workers carry vaccination kits at a distribution centre ahead of the start of a nationwide polio immunization campaign on Wednesday, in Lagos February 21, 2011. (Akintunde Akinleye/Courtesy Reuters)


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.

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  • Posted by Sadee

    Great article! However I beg to differ with you on certain issues. I am a Public Health practitioner working in northern Nigeria and I had the privilege to interview a lot of locals regarding their opposition to polio vaccine. True, most oppose it because they see it as a Western (read US) plan to depopulate them. Some wonder why the US, an enemy of Islam will spend a huge sum of money to ‘help’ Muslims. Indeed a lot of them are surprised whenever I tell them that it is actually the Federal Government of Nigeria that is buying the vaccines. So I beg to disagree with you that there is a strong suspicion of the national government. I think the polio issue in northern Nigeria is one more of the weaknesses of the Nigerian Health System. It is unimaginable to think that even many supervisors of the polio campaigns believe that the vaccines and everything related to the campaign is sponsored by the ‘West’. I believe the Nigerian government needs to do more to talk to the people that matter. It is my opinion that the current Minister of State for Health has started doing well on this and am confident the results will start flowing in.

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