By Christine Jaulmes
ZARIA, Nigeria, 23 April 2007 - Every Saturday, Asiya, 5, helps her mother with household chores. After sweeping floors and washing clothes, she leaves home to attend Koranic school in her neighbourhood.
In spite of her tender age, Asiya is expected to learn the Koran by heart - a religious tradition observed by many Muslim communities here in northern Nigeria. At the school, Asiya sits on the floor with other children as they recite the verses.
On a recent Saturday, though, the long hours of recitation were interrupted. A team of vaccinators had arrived, asking permission to immunize the children. Their visit was part of the outreach strategy for Nigeria's Immunization Plus Days - a four-day campaign aimed at immunizing all children under five years of age against polio and other common childhood diseases.
Just a year earlier, many Koranic schools would not have allowed the immunizations. But this year things have changed. Headmaster Mallam Mohammed not only gave his consent but also helped organize the children.
"In the past, we didn't have a clear understanding of these issues. But now we understand everything about it," said Mr. Mohammed. "As a result of the preaching given by our religious leaders, we know that immunization is good for our children and we should cooperate."
Mobilizing religious leaders
In 2006, Nigeria reported more than 1,000 polio cases - half of the global total. It is also the last polio-endemic country in Africa, and the poliovirus is still very active, especially in the north.
For the government and its partners, including UNICEF, the mobilization of traditional and religious leaders has been a key approach in the campaign to eradicate polio. These leaders' understanding and acceptance of immunization has a direct impact on the whole community.
To build trust in immunization, community dialogues are held throughout the region, involving religious and traditional leaders as well as Koranic schoolteachers. Those leaders who support immunization preach in mosques, and during other public gatherings, about the importance of protecting children against preventable diseases. With their influence, immunization has become more openly accepted in many communities.
"I allow my children to be immunized because it prevents them from getting killer diseases such as measles, polio and diphtheria," said Asiya's mother, Husaina Aminu.
30,000 schoolchildren immunized
With Mr. Mohammed's full agreement, the team at Asiya's school got all children under five to line up and started to give them vaccines.
Asiya patiently waited her turn. When it came, she opened her mouth wide to get the two drops of oral polio vaccine. Her thumb was then marked with violet ink to indicate that she had been immunized.
During this round of the polio immunization campaign in Kaduna State, some 30,000 Koranic schoolchildren were vaccinated against polio. The campaign aims to reach a total of 14.5 million children across northern Nigeria, protecting each and every one of them from this deadly disease, which doesn't discriminate.