updated 8/30/2005 5:43:16 AM ET 2005-08-30T09:43:16

Children in school uniforms and toddlers on parents’ hips lined up across Indonesia Tuesday, part of a polio vaccination drive aimed at 24 million youths. Health officials said they worried the crippling disease could spread to other countries.

Polio has sickened 225 children since the virus reappeared in mostly Muslim Indonesia in March for the first time in 10 years. Tuesday’s operation was the latest round in a massive campaign to stamp it out.

Political leaders and celebrities have been enlisted to help convince a skeptical public that the vaccinations are safe. Rumors have spread that vaccinations are dangerous and violate Islamic law, similar to whisperings that spread through Nigeria during a polio outbreak there in 2003.

The $24 million campaign was comparable in preparation to a general election: More than 750,000 health workers fanned out across the sprawling archipelago at 245,000 posts set up at health clinics, bus depots, rail stations and airports.

The army and police were helping deliver vaccine — by plane, boat, bicycle and foot — to some of Indonesia’s 6,000 inhabited islands.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s wife administered oral drops to several children at a makeshift health center in a Jakarta suburb, where the mood was festive with balloons and a live band.

“People should not be afraid,” Kristiani Yudhoyono said. “We are doing this for the sake of the children, for the sake of the next generation.”

Skepticism, confusion mar efforts
But some mothers said they had no plans to immunize their toddlers and officials with the U.N. children’s agency said they were afraid more parents would be dissuaded by a television report that wrongly said sick children could not be vaccinated.

They said some local health workers, too, were following this policy.

“The biggest problem right now is confusion over whether sick children can be vaccinated,” said UNICEF’s Claire Hajaj. “If it isn’t decisively addressed, you’re going to continue to miss children ... and it could have catastrophic consequences.”

Health workers said they were encouraged by larger than expected turn outs, especially in the capital, where hundreds of parents and children lined up at vaccination posts.

“I’m optimistic, but this is just the beginning,” said I. Nyoman Kandun, who is heading the polio campaign for the Ministry of Health, noting that another round of immunizations is scheduled for Sept. 27. “We have remote areas that are not easily reached.”

Hours after the campaign kicked off, parents enthusiastically held up their children’s hands, red dots on their pinkies testimony that they’d been vaccinated.

In Sepadan, a village 25 miles west of Jakarta, Murtina said she was happy to take part in the campaign.

“I’ve seen children on television with polio,” said the mother of three, who uses only one name. “I don’t want my daughter to suffer like that.”

But a few said false media reports convinced them that the vaccinations could put their children at risk. Similar rumors circulated in Nigeria two years ago, where polio vaccinations were suspended for several months after radical Islamic preachers told parents they believed the vaccinations were part of a U.S. plot against Muslims.

“The vaccine will not create any side affects,” Health Minister Siti Fadilah Supari told reporters, adding that religious leaders and non-governmental activists had been asked to call parents to make sure no child missed out.

But 35-year-old tailor, Darnelis, said she had no plans to immunize her three children.

“My husband prohibits it,” she said from her cluttered one-room house in the low-income neighborhood of Tanah Abang. “We’ve heard reports on television about some children getting sick.”

“We never got the vaccine,” she added. “And we’re safe. So why do they need it?”

Fears of an epidemic
The World Health Organization is worried the virus could spread to other parts of Southeast Asia and turn into an epidemic if it’s not stopped by the rainy season, which begins in October.

“Papua New Guinea, Thailand, Malaysia are a concern. China is a concern,” said Georg Petersen, WHO’s representative in Indonesia. “In all these countries, there are areas where the immunization coverage is not good.”

Polio spreads when unvaccinated people come into contact with the feces of those with the virus, often through contaminated water in places with poor hygiene or inadequate sewage systems.

It attacks the nervous system in young children, causing paralysis, muscular atrophy and sometimes death. Only about one in 200 of those infected ever develops symptoms.

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