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International health experts, tantalizingly close to global eradication of polio, are struggling to contain the spread of the virus in central and western Africa.
Eight countries where polio had been wiped out have seen the disease resurface, and tests trace the cases -- a total of at least 46 -- back to northern Nigeria. Local leaders in the state of Kano, north of the capital, Abuja, halted immunizations in August, claiming falsely that the vaccine was contaminated and could cause sterility in girls.
Experts at an international conference on infectious diseases in Atlanta this month said they believe Islamic clerics in Kano are trying to encourage public mistrust of the Nigerian government, which supports polio vaccination.
World Islamic leaders are working behind the scenes to break the logjam. The Nigerian government sent the vaccine to South Africa for tests to prove its safety, but the positive results were not accepted by the Kano leaders.
The state then assembled a 23-member team that included Kano Islamic scholars and other authorities to conduct its own inquiry. Results are expected within days, said David Heymann of the World Health Organization, speaking at the Atlanta conference.
Heymann, who returned late last week from Nigeria, said U.N. officials have been working to resolve the differences. ''Problems have not been solved in the north,'' he said Friday by phone from WHO headquarters in Geneva. ''But we're getting closer. There may be something to announce on Tuesday. It won't be the end (of the problem), but it may be progress.''
WHO initially set 2000 as the target for ridding the world of polio. That goal was missed, and WHO moved the deadline to the end of this year.
Despite the setback, Heymann expects the spread of polio to cease in every country by the end of this year or early next year.
The global eradication effort led by WHO, Rotary International, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and UNICEF has reduced the number of countries where polio circulates from 125 in 1988 to six -- India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt, Niger and Nigeria -- and brought the number of cases from 1,000 a day to fewer than 800 for all of last year.
Officials in countries where the paralyzing virus still exists should support universal polio immunization, not only to protect their own children from paralysis, Heymann said, but also ''to be good neighbors in a world where national borders do not protect against infectious diseases.''
Once polio is eliminated from a country, immunization rates should remain high to prevent re-introduction of the virus, he said. ''If countries neighboring Nigeria had strong national immunization programs, they would have prevented the importations.''
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