Polio Vaccinators Are Being Shot Dead in Nigeria and Pakistan

Everyone's saying it's the work of Islamist groups, but what do they have to gain from it?

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Feb 19 2013, 4:45pm


Photo by Julien Harneis

The charity workers of the world must be used to being under-appreciated, but clearly being hunted with a gun is a different thing entirely. A recent spate of shootings of polio vaccinators in Pakistan and Nigeria – mostly alleged to be the work of Islamist groups – is clearly a massive threat to the polio vaccination campaign. 

In 1988, poliovirus was still endemic in 125 countries. Now, 25 years later, there are only three countries left under threat: Pakistan, Nigeria and Afghanistan. The attacks on polio workers in two of those countries – nine were shot dead in Nigeria last week and Pakistani workers have suffered various attacks over the last few months, resulting in the suspension of vaccinations – reveal how politicised vaccinations have become. As Sona Bari from the World Health Organisation (WHO) told me, "health is being used as a pawn on the chessboard of politics". Field doctors and nurses represent an easy target for those who oppose ruling governments.

Attacks on health and aid workers are not a new phenomenon in these countries. The usual explanation is that attacks derive from fear and suspicion about the intentions of the vaccination workers – accusations of them being US spies or attempting to sterilise the local children being two popular theories. Of course, both those theories sound ridiculous. But the US sent spies posing as aid workers to Kashmir after the 2005 earthquake and Pfizer, an American pharmaceutical company, caused paralysis with untested drugs throughout Nigeria in 1996, so it's easier to understand how these ideas might have been cultivated.  

Despite this, the parents of Pakistan and Nigeria aren't exactly reluctant to make use of the vaccinations. Javed Akhtar, CEO of NGO Support with Working Solution (SWWS), told me that "mothers walk miles to take their children to the nearest hospital. Their minds are clear – they want to vaccinate their children".    

The identities of the attackers are has been the subject of much speculation, with many assuming it to be the work of Islamist groups – the Taliban in Pakistan and Boko Haram in Nigeria. Elias Dury, senior coordinator at the polio department for WHO in Pakistan, claims it's too "broad and difficult a question" to answer, perhaps remaining diplomatic before claims can be substantiated. However, Shehu Shani, president of the Civil Rights Congress in Nigeria, seemed more adamant about the allegations. He pointed out that "the Taliban in Pakistan targets agencies and government officials, and the ideology is something that goes hand-in-hand with Islamists in the northern parts of Nigeria". And Javed, of SWWS, told me that "the Taliban are openly doing this" in Pakistan.              

The attacks aren't simply a way of telling the US to go fuck itself – an idea Sona Bari says the media cultivates through exploiting national stereotypes. Groups opposing the governments of each country find causes important to those governments (in this case, polio vaccination) and try to crush them to make their position clear. It's a case of "a government priority being used as a hostage", Sona told me.    

Three members of staff at Nigerian radio station Wazobia FM were arrested for inciting the attacks on the polio workers last week. It then turned out that they were all "strong members of the party that lost power in 2006", according to Shehu, adding some clout to the idea that it is politics, rather than extremism, that's at play here. Especially considering Nigeria's new president, Goodluck Jonathan, upped the focus on the anti-polio campaign in September last year, brandishing a very public bullseye for others to target.

In Pakistan, it's likely the shootings could be a method to disrupt civil order, as it's not only polio workers being targeted, but also educators and other health workers – the majority of them female. The fact that females in employment represent the development of civil society is exactly why Javed believes the Taliban are targeting them. The attacks fit into the Taliban's wider political agenda of waging war on modernity and pushing for the de-evolution of society. "They are shooting these women to contest and challenge the Pakistani government," he told me.   

Shehu and Javed confirmed how certain Islamic clerics in Nigeria and Pakistan use myths and conspiracy theories to create negative propaganda about the vaccinations. The number of people who actually take on these conspiracies are, in fact, extremely low, but their negative message is huge and it detracts from what's actually happening: the attacks themselves.

In 2012, there were 58 cases of polio in Pakistan – a "71 percent reduction of cases compared to 2011", according to Elias. But if these politically-motivated attacks continue, it's likely that the opportunities to get vaccinated are going to shrink and things are only going to get worse again. And not because the drugs to stop polio are unavailable, but because some people trying to piss off a government are making access to them seem impossible.   

Follow Sascha on Twitter: @SaschaKouvelis

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