John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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Murder of Medical Personnel Sets Back Polio Immunization in Northern Nigeria

by John Campbell
February 12, 2013

A health worker immunises a four-year-old boy at Ilashe island, 25 km (15 miles) from the Nigerian capital Lagos, May 16, 2005. Nigeria has launched the third round of the National Immunization Campaigns this year in hopes of eradicating polio. George Esiri/Courtesy REUTERS A health worker immunises a four-year-old boy at Ilashe island, 25 km (15 miles) from the Nigerian capital Lagos, May 16, 2005. Nigeria has launched the third round of the National Immunization Campaigns this year in hopes of eradicating polio. George Esiri/Courtesy REUTERS

On February 8, unidentified gunmen killed four health workers at a site in Kano state and injured three others, 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 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, one of only three countries that still have a reservoir of the virus.

According to the press, security operatives believe 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 long standing on the basis that it is a Western and Christian plot sponsored by the 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 an American company 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 despite the fact that northern governors now support the vaccination campaign. Nevertheless, 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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