How in the world did something as innocuous as the sugary pink polio vaccine turn into a flash point between Islamic militants and Western “crusaders,” flaring into a confrontation so ugly that teenage girls — whose only “offense” is that they are protecting children — are gunned down in the streets?
Nine vaccine workers were killed in Pakistan last week in a terrorist campaign that brought the work of 225,000 vaccinators to a standstill. Suspicion fell immediately on factions of the Pakistani Taliban that have threatened vaccinators in the past, accusing them of being American spies.
Polio eradication officials have promised to regroup and try again. But first they must persuade the killers to stop shooting workers and even guarantee safe passage.
That has been done before, notably in Afghanistan in 2007, when Mullah Muhammad Omar, spiritual head of the Afghan Taliban, signed a letter of protection for vaccination teams. But in Pakistan, the killers may be breakaway groups following no one’s rules.
Vaccination efforts are also under threat in other Muslim regions, although not this violently yet.
In Nigeria, another polio-endemic country, the new Islamic militant group Boko Haram has publicly opposed it, although the only killings that the news media have linked to polio were those of two police officers escorting vaccine workers. Boko Haram has killed police officers on other missions, unrelated to polio vaccinations.
In Mali, extremists took over half of the country in May, declaring an Islamic state. Vaccination is not an issue yet, but Mali had polio cases as recently as mid-2011, and the virus sometimes circulates undetected.
Resistance to polio vaccine springs from a combination of fear, often in marginalized ethnic groups, and brutal historical facts that make that fear seem justified. Unless it is countered, and quickly, the backlash threatens the effort to eradicate polio in the three countries where it remains endemic: Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria.