As the decades-long fight against polio lurches closer to the finish line, vaccination workers on the front lines have come under attack like never before.
On Friday, gunmen in northern Nigeria opened fire on polio vaccination workers, leaving at least nine women dead. The gunmen are suspected members of a radical Islamist sect that has been terrorizing Nigerians, called Boko Haram — a phrase that roughly translates to “western education is sin.”
The Nigerian attacks echo recent incidents in Pakistan, where militants killed at least 16 polio vaccination workers in December and January. For the front-line workers in the global polio eradication campaign, which began in 1988, their mission has never been deadlier.
“The awful, horrible killings that have taken place in both Nigeria and Pakistan are unprecedented,” said Ellyn Ogden, who has co-ordinated polio eradication efforts for the United States Agency for International Development since 1997.
“I can’t even imagine how they would think to do this. It’s really unconscionable.”
Polio is a highly infectious, potentially fatal viral disease that mostly affects children under 5. There is no cure and infection can cause permanent paralysis within hours.
The multiple-dose vaccine can confer immunity for life, however, and polio eradication efforts over the past two decades have eliminated endemic polio from every country except Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Generally, polio vaccination drives have been remarkably successful, even in times of conflict or instability, according to a 2010 briefing by the United States Institute of Peace.
“The disruption and targeting of health programs are two of the most pervasive features of modern armed conflict,” wrote Leonard Rubenstein with the Center for Public Health and Human Rights at Johns Hopkins University.
“Yet in more than two dozen conflicts spanning over 20 years, polio vaccination campaigns have successfully immunized millions of people, mostly children, against the disease — defying conventional wisdom.”Checking the Nigerian media this evening, I noticed that very few newspapers have even mentioned the shootings; those that did have not yet updated their reports from this morning.