Polio vaccine caused Nigerian kids to get polio

Polio vaccine caused Nigerian kids to get polio

October 12, 2007

Since 2005, 69 Nigerian kids have been paralyzed by polio, and, surprising to many, these kids indirectly contracted the disease from the vaccine itself.

How? The oral polio vaccine contains a weakened form of the polio virus. Vaccinated kids pass the virus into the water, where unvaccinated kids can pick up the virus by playing in or drinking the water. Normally, this exposure gives unvaccinated kids some protection against polio. But in very rare circumstances, the virus can mutate into a dangerous form, causing the actual disease in unvaccinated kids.

Since this manner of contracting polio only happens when not enough kids are vaccinated, the solution is to vaccinate an even higher fraction of youngsters. But that could prove to be very challenging in Nigeria.

In 2003, there was a boycott of vaccination programs for nearly a year—which caused polio to jump to 12 new countries in 18 months—because some Muslim leaders in Nigeria said that the polio vaccine was a Western plot to sterilize Muslims. The belief reflects a general mistrust and skepticism of Western medicine that exists in many developing countries, where many believe that vaccines and drugs will sterilize people or infect them with HIV as part of a Western conspiracy to reduce the populations of certain races or religions. An earlier FP List, “The World’s Stupidest Fatwas,” mentions how some rural Pakistani mullahs have issued fatwas against the polio vaccine.

Stupid is still the right word. As the Nigeria case shows, the latest polio outbreak proved how these fatwas can be self-fulfilling prophecies: By boycotting the “dangerous” vaccine, some kids actually got sick from it, proving how “dangerous” the vaccine indeed is.

The only thing sadder may be health officials’ delayed response. The World Health Organization and U.S. Centers for Disease Control have known about the Nigerian outbreak since last year, but they kept silent about it until now. One specialist has said that the delayed reporting may have delayed a medical response.

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