Were health care workers in Nigeria murdered for doling out polio vaccines?

The Islamist militant group Boko Haram is thought to be behind the recent gruesome attacks. But suspicion about vaccination campaigns has deeper historical roots in northern Nigeria, writes John Campbell.

Saurabh Das/Associated Press
In this 2004 file photo, immunizers administer polio vaccine to a child carried by a marketwoman on her back in Lagos, Nigeria.

On Feb. 8, unidentified gunmen killed four health workers and injured three others at a site in the Kano state of northern Nigeria, according to the media.  In what may have been part of a coordinated attack, at about the same time a separate set of gunmen killed an additional five health workers at another site. The health workers were all involved in a polio vaccination campaign.

In a third incident in the same time frame, gunmen killed three foreign medical doctors in Yobe state. One physician was beheaded, and all three had machete wounds. The three medical doctors were identified as North Koreans living in Yobe as part of a state-sponsored technical exchange. Press reports do not indicate whether the three were also involved in the polio immunization campaign.

In the aftermath of these killings, the inspector general of police has ordered “special security” for those involved in the polio immunization campaign.

Commentators, including Senator Bukola Saraki, a former governor of the western Kwara state and former chairman of the Governors Forum, and the national chairman of Journalists Against Polio, see the murders as inevitably setting back the polio immunization campaign. Kano has the largest number of polio cases in Nigeria, which is itself one of only three countries that still have a reservoir of the virus.

According to the press, security operatives believe the Islamist militant group Boko Haram is responsible for the murders.  However, following the usual pattern in the aftermath of attacks over the past several weeks, no one has claimed responsibility.

Opposition to the polio vaccination is longstanding on the basis that it is a Western and Christian plot sponsored by the Nigerian federal government in Abuja to limit Muslim births. It is a radical Islamist cause that builds on opposition dating back to controversial pharmaceutical trials by the American company Pfizer in the 1990s.

There are anecdotal reports that many mothers continue to avoid vaccination for their male children. In 2003, an earlier World Health Organization vaccination campaign was halted because of popular outcry when minute traces of estrogen were found in the vaccine. The campaign only restarted a year later when an “Islamic” source of vaccine was identified (Malaysia) and pressure was exerted by Saudi Arabia, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and Western donors, including the United States

While the vaccination campaign was suspended, polio of Nigerian origin reportedly spread to seventeen countries previously free of the disease, including Indonesia. More recently, Kano governor Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso has strongly supported the polio vaccination campaign. Even so, progress towards eradication remains slow. Nigerian commentators are right when they say that the campaign will surely suffer set backs as a result of the murders.

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