01/29/2013 01:08 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2013

Refusing Polio Vaccine in Nigeria

This article is written to a man who has never met me. I saw him on the news swearing he would never let his children be vaccinated against polio.

He swore that the polio vaccine is against Islam and it is intended to kill or make sterile the Muslim children in his country -- Nigeria -- and other countries.

This misinformed man is one of millions of people misled by zealots and fanatics who either believe this non-scientific myth or else use it to gain power within their communities.

The tragic consequence is that hundreds of thousands of children are now exposed to polio, which was nearly eradicated from the planet a few years ago. The recent movie Hyde Park reminds us that U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt was a victim of polio and was confined to a wheel chair while he fought the ravages of the depression in the 30s and the brutal realties of World War II.

One has only to visit Nigeria or India or Pakistan for a few hours to catch a glimpse of beggars who creep along the dirt roads of villages or the filthy asphalt streets of the cities, crawling on their elbows and dragging legs paralyzed due to polio.

I remember in the 1950s when I was a kid and we were not allowed to go to the park to play and were forbidden to swim in New York's public pools -- some of which even shut down in summer when the polio seemed most contagious.

All that changed in 1952. I see this scene over and over in my mind whenever the question of polio comes up. One day my mother came home from the clinic where she worked as a pediatrician. She began crying as she saw on the evening news that a researcher named Jonas Salk had created a polio vaccine.

U.S. polio cases fell from 42,000 in 1949 to zero by 1999 thanks to serious, widespread and scientific use of vaccine on every American child, according to Post-Polio Health International.

In 1988, when the World Health Organization began an effort to eliminate all cases of polio worldwide by 2000, there were 350,000 polio cases. By 2006, only 2,000 cases were reported in the world, and only three countries still harbored the polio virus: Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

My Nigerian brother. Your children are my children and my children are yours. We do not want our children to become paralyzed and we do not want the children of our neighbors and friends to become sick with polio.

Whether we live in the biggest city or the smallest village the same truths are true. Water flows down hill, fire consumes fuel wood and the sky gives us sunshine and rain. If we cut ourselves while working or preparing food, our blood is the same color. Red. At the end of our days on earth we all pass on.

The truth about polio, my brother, is also true in all countries and homes. It is a disease caused by a virus that is spread from person to person. It is a very tricky disease because only one child in 10 who catches the disease will become sick. The other nine children can carry the disease and pass it on to his or her friends without ever knowing he or she is infected. That is why immunization -- giving the vaccine to every single child in every single village or city in every country on earth -- is the only way to end polio forever.

If you or I say you we not believe in the vaccine and won't vaccinate our children, we put at risk all the children in our village and city.

Immunization has been known for at least three centuries since Englishman Edward Jenner discovered that he could defeat smallpox in 1796 by giving a patient a small dose of cowpox. Smallpox has now been so completely eradicated world wide that our children no longer need immunization. The virus is gone except for a few samples in medical research labs.
To reach the distant corners of the world where polio still lurks, Bill Gates'
foundation has pledged $1 billion. Rotary International has given $500 million.

The U.S. Agency for International Development and the world Health Organization are offering free vaccinations worldwide.

My Nigerian brother. You know that when you lift up a hot pot you use a cloth so you are not burned. When you have headache or other pain, aspirin can help. When the kids are sick, penicillin from the pharmacy or the clinic can make them healthy. Even your cow and your chickens can be treated with medicine for worms and other parasites.

Modern life does not necessarily pit our traditions and religious beliefs against the advances of science and education. Any father or mother, any mullah or priest would want to prevent children from becoming paralyzed.

For some unknown reason, however, some Muslim preachers have taught that polio vaccines are anti-Islamic and the vaccines are part of a conspiracy intended to sterilize Muslim girls. This is not true. And to answer any concerns that vaccines may be made with non-Halal ingredients that are forbidden to Muslims, polio vaccines are now being produced in Muslim Indonesia under strict halal supervision.
My Nigerian friend. Even if you are willing to risk the health of your own children by refusing the polio vaccine, you have not the right to put at risk the health of all your neighbors' children. After Northern Nigerian religious leaders advised people to refuse the vaccine, polio quickly spread and was passed on by pilgrims at the Hajj in Mecca to Muslims from Indonesia and other countries.

Now some mullahs and anti-Western Islamist militants in Pakistan and Afghanistan have advised people not to accept the vaccine. They have even slaughtered young local women working on the vaccine program -- women who risked and lost their lives trying to protect all of our children. The militants say the vaccine program was used as a cover to locate Osama bin Laden who was killed by U.S. special forces in Pakistan.

Some health experts criticized the use of vaccine programs to collect intelligence for military activities. Health workers should always be seen as neutral humanitarian helpers who can go on all sides of conflict to offer medical care and vaccination.

My brother, do not allow the mistakes of the past -- and the mistaken ideas of ill-informed people -- to let polio emerge back into the world to cripple our sons and daughters.