The World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Monday it was investigating a suspected rash of new polio cases in Kano state which stopped vaccinating people last year amid fears that the campaign formed part of a Western plot to reduce the Muslim population of Nigeria.
A WHO official told IRIN by telephone that the organisation had dispatched a team to the town of Rogo, 100 km southwest of Kano, the largest city in northern Nigeria, to investigate the suspected outbreak. It had gone there at the invitation of Kano state government, he added.
The news of a suspected polio outbreak in northern Nigeria came less than a fortnight after U.N. health experts warned the crippling disease was spreading at an alarming pace and that West and Central Africa was "on the brink of the largest polio epidemic in recent years."
Last Friday, a local government official in Kano state said between 20 and 30 suspected cases of polio had been recorded over the past four weeks in Rogo and the surrounding district.
Nasril Dalha, the vice-chairman of Rogo local council, told Freedom Radio, a private radio station in Kano, that during the month of June between one and two cases of suspected polio had been recorded in each of the 15 districts that make up Rogo.
He quoted hospital officials as saying that all the patients showed symptoms typical of polio - pain in the limbs, fever, fatigue and stiffness. Some were already paralysed, he added.
"If this situation is not addressed quickly, I'm afraid more children will be affected," Dalha said. He appealed to Kano State Governor Ibrahim Shekarau to take immediate steps to stop the virus spreading.
Last September Shekarau halted Kano state’s participation in a global campaign to eradicate polio, saying scientists had discovered traces of the hormone oestrogen in polio vaccines and feared it could make girls infertile when they grew up.
Local Islamic leaders had earlier alleged that Western countries were using the polio immunisation campaign to spread HIV and cancer and to sterilise Muslim people in order to reduce the Muslim population of Nigeria.
The population of Kano state is overwhelmingly Muslim. Muslims dominate northern Nigeria and account for about half of the country's overall population, which is officially estimated at 126 million.
Kano announced at the end of May that it had found safe polio vaccines in Indonesia and would soon call off its boycott of the immunisation campaign, which is officially supported by Nigeria's federal government.
The WHO in Geneva said last week that Kano state had informed the organisation that it was ready to resume immunisation within days.
Kano state spokesman Sule Ya'u Sule declined to comment on the reported outbreak of polio in Rogo. But he said he expected the state government to set a date for the resumption of polio vaccination this week, once it had the obtained the outcome of final tests on the Indonesian vaccines performed by Kano state scientists.
Nigeria's polio problem has rippled around the West African region. Last month the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, which is battling to wipe out the crippling disease by 2005, said that five times as many children in West and Central Africa had been struck with polio in the first half of 2004 as during the same period last year.
Over the past year, 10 African countries, which had previously been declared polio-free, have been reinfected.
Polio can strike at any age, though half of all cases occur in children under three. The viral disease causes paralysis, usually in the lower limbs, leaving victims consigned to a wheelchair or crutches.
The Global Polio Eradication Initiative says massive, synchronised immunisation campaigns already planned for October and November are crucial if the threat of a renewed epidemic is to be averted.
Health experts are aiming to reach 74 million children across 22 African countries before then end of November but they say grass-roots support is vital in getting children to participate.