July 06, 2005


Under the headline, "NIGERIA HAS BECOME THE HOTBED OF A POLIO EPIDEMIC THAT HAS INFECTED 14 OTHER AFRICAN COUNTRIES," Le Monde reports today that "Nigeria, the giant of West Africa with 130 million inhabitants, is today the hotbed for a global epidemic of poliomyelitis. Parting from the northern Nigeria region of Kano [controlled by Islamic fundamentalists], the polio virus -- which paralyzes and can be lethal -- has spread as far as Yemen and even Indonesia, a country in which no case of polio had been identified for 10 years."

Ninety percent of the African polio victims are children (the disease used to be called "infantile paralysis.") According to Le Monde, 73% of the Nigerian polio cases identified by the United Nations in 2005 were localized in the 12 states in northern Nigeria which are under the control of Islamist fundamentalists who have re-established the sharia, or Koranic law (also known as "Allah's law"). In these 12 Nigerian states under the sharia, the religious authorities responsible for interpreting and enforcing it --known as oulemas --  "decreed that the anti-polio vaccine, being distributed by UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO) in cooperation with the Nigerian Ministry of Health, is part of a plot woven by the United States with the complicity of the UN to sterilize young Muslims," Le Monde reports. The oulemas are religious sages, and their interpretations have the force of divine law that supersedes civil law (the word oulema comes from the Arabic alim --لم -- and in the Koran, al-Alim means "he who knows all," and is one of the 99 names of God, or Allah). Faced with this lethal religious obscurantism that was responsible for castrating the vaccination campaign in the 12 sharia states, the federal government of General Olusegun Obasanjo (highly corrupt and authoritarian) "did not react," says Le Monde.

Salk_bvy_karsh This story touches me deeply, as I happen to have had personal experience with polio caused by religious superstition. I was one of those who contracted polio during the last epidemic in he U.S. that infected at least 100,000 children and many adults in the 1950s. In 1955, Dr. Jonas Salk (left) developed a vaccine that immunized humans against polio. A vaccination campaign in the schools inoculated every American schoolchild -- but because my parents were religious nuts who had converted to Christian Science (a particularly lethal form of religious superstition that believes in healing only through prayer and shuns doctors) they sent a note to the school authorities exempting me from the vaccination program, and I contracted polio as a result. It nearly killed me,Iron_lung  although I finally recovered after spending two years imprisoned in an iron lung (right) to keep me breathing from the age of 10, and many years of painful rehabilitation afterward. So the story in today's Le Monde hits me where I live, and I suffer for the children who are, unnecessarily, the newest victims of this entirely preventable disease in Africa, Indonesia, and elswhere.

Under pressure from the UN and international agencies providing Nigeria with financial aide, General Obasanjo's government finally reacted, with reluctance. But some of the measures taken were a joke: for example, the Sultan of Sokoto, the highest spiritual authority recognized by the 65 million Muslims in Nigeria, was persuaded to pose for a photograph in which he vaccinated a child -- the photo was used to illustrate a calendar. But a calendar was unlikely to be terribly persuasive to the largely illiterate Nigerian Muslim population, and only a very a feeble counterweight to tens of thousands of oulemas in every town and village in Northern Nigeria who daily preach their sharia obscurantism and mad superstition. For example, in the Kano region, the Muslim authorities demanded to test the vaccines themselves and to visit the factories where the vaccines were produced. By the time these procedures demanded by the anti-science religious obscurantists were terminated, the number of young infants touched by the virus had soared, from 350 in 2003 to 800 in 2004, according to Le Monde.

Polio is a highly contagious disease, that can be contracted by absorbing minute air-borne microbes through the mouth. It is thus hardly surprising that in the largest Muslim country in the world, Indonesia,  21 new cases of polio were reported yesterday by the WHO's spokesman, Oliver Rosenbauer, according to Agence France Presse, bringing to 100 the number of cases discovered this year in Indonesia. 20 of these new cases were on the island of Java, the most populous part of the Indonesian archipelago. "It's too soon to know what will be the impact of our vaccination campaigns just launched in Indonesia, because analysis takes time," declared the WHO's Rosenbauer, adding, "It's possible to stop a polio epidemic rapidly, but to do so there  must be a vaccination campaign of high quality." And that implies an adequate medical infrastructure, which is sorely lacking in the 14 sub-Saharan African countries where polio is spreading, and in Indonesia, as was seen quite clearly during the recovery there from the tsunami, which strained an already-thin health system to the breaking point, a body blow from which it has not yet recovered. Muslim fundamentalism is widespread and growing in Indonesia, and it takes little imagination to surmise that the same sort of sharia obscurantists who condemned Nigeria's Muslim children to suffer the horrific ravages of polio are present in Indonesia and replicating their lethal dance of superstition there. Polo can kill quickly -- often those who have it don't know they have it, as the symptoms could be those of a flu or a bad cold -- but within a couple of days, one can be dead. Thousands of children in the First World died in the 1950s, despite benefiting from the most advanced health systems on the globe. What kind of fighting chance do babies and kids have who contract polio in the Third World, where only dollar or two a year per inhabitant is spent on health care? Moreover, children must receive, not one but multiple doses of the vaccine to insure their immunization, and to be effective the vaccines must be administered under rigorous schedules and top-flight supervision. Not readily achievable in the Third World for the reasons I've mentioned. Finally, because polio is so highly contagious, it could spread easily to the developed countries -- necessitating renewed, massive vaccination and prevention campaigns like those of the 1950s.

The Le Monde article unfortunately didn't mention it, but polio is a disease which strikes you twice. In the mid-1980s, scientists discovered Post-Polio Syndrome (PPS), which affects 70% of those who originally contracted polio, some 30 years after the fact. PPS hits those portions of your musculature which were previously affected by the original onset of the disease but which recovered partially or fully, and one's muscles atrophy anew. So, even if you managed to live through polio, and -- after extensive physical therapy that can be excruciatingly painful -- regain some use of those muscles affected, Post-Polio Syndrome will, in seven out of 10 cases, come back to haunt you with renewed paralysis, for which there is no cure. I know polio victims from the '50s who just a few years ago were walking around -- now they're confined to wheel chairs because of PPS. Medical science has yet to discover any remedy for PPS -- and guess why? Because polio has been eliminated in the Western world, and the new cases that have been identified by the WHO and other international health agencies have been confined to the poorest countries of the Third World, whose polio victims don't have money to buy vaccines or treatments. Thus there is no financial incentive for the multinational behemoths of Big Pharma to put money into developing a drug to fight PPS, since they couldn't make money from it. And so, the victims of the current epidemic in Africa and Muslim countries, if they survive, have the joyous prospect of the disease attacking them anew to look forward to. (For more information on PPS, visit the website of the Post-Polio Network.)

A footnote: Although Dr. Jonas Salk was hailed in the press as a "miracle worker" for discovering his anti-polio vaccine in 1955, the polio tragedies in the U.S. did not end there. Salk's vaccine was composed of "killed" polio virus, which retained the ability to immunize without running the risk of infecting the patient. A few years later, a vaccine made from live polio virus was developed, which could be administered orally, while Salk's vaccine required injection. Further, there was some evidence that the "killed" vaccine failed to completely immunize the patient. In the U.S., public health authorities elected to distribute the "live" oral vaccine instead of Salk's. Tragically, the preparation of live virus infected some patients with the disease, rather than immunizing them. Since the introduction of the original vaccine, the few new cases of polio reported in the United States were probably caused by the "live" oral vaccine which was intended to prevent them. And guess what anti-polio vaccine is used in many Third World countries? The oral version.

There's a very good reason for that -- and it has to do with money. Salk refused to patent his vaccine, and didn't make a dime from it -- his only desire as a humanitarian and scientific healer being to see it as widely used as possible -- while the oral vaccine was developed, and patented, by Big Pharma , which made a great deal of money from it -- then as now.

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