Fear and secrecy have cloaked the roll-out of a polio campaign currently underway in northern Nigeria. Vaccinators are concealing their identities, hiding vaccinations under their veils and visiting some areas only with undercover armed guards, following the February murder by Boko Haram of nine polio workers in the northern city of Kano.
“The [polio] campaign is done under an atmosphere of fear and secrecy, with vaccinators hiding their identity and moving around furtively for fear of being attacked,” a source at the World Health Organization (WHO) office in Kano, who is involved in polio immunization campaigns, told IRIN.
The Ministry of Health temporarily suspended the immunization campaign in March 2013, as vaccinators were too frightened to continue, said Shehu Abdullahi, executive secretary of Kano state’s Primary Healthcare Management Board (PHMB) in charge of polio immunizations. The campaign resumed in April.
Vaccination activities limited
On 8 February, gunmen on motorized rickshaws opened fire on two polio clinics in the Hotoro and Unguwa Uku areas of Kano, killing nine female polio vaccinators who were waiting to collect vaccines for house-to-house immunizations.
For the current campaign, vaccinator Jamila Ahmad told IRIN: “We conceal the polio kit under our hijab [veil] and move around as if we are going for a wedding or naming ceremony, while the supervisor trails behind us at a safe distance that will not raise any suspicion that he is with us.”
Most door-to-door polio immunizations are performed by women, who can typically access homes unhindered; men would have to seek the consent of male family heads to enter homes - but male supervisors usually form part of the team.
Resistance to polio immunization has long hindered efforts to eradicate the disease in Nigeria. But vaccinators are now afraid to engage in dialogue with parents who refuse to vaccinate their children, as they do not want to create a scene that might attract the attention of would-be attackers, “because you don’t know who you are dealing with,” said the WHO source.