Unknown gunmen on mopeds shot dead 10 polio vaccinators last week in separate attacks on two polio clinics in the northern Nigerian city of Kano, capital of a polio-endemic region where concerted global efforts are being made to stamp out the virus by the end of 2013.
In 2012 polio infected 28 children in Kano State, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Health officials fear the attacks will slow progress on the polio campaign in the region.
“The attack on polio immunization workers is a setback to the [polio] programme and the success we have recorded so far… [The] polio eradication campaign is a very important issue with the Kano State government,” Kano State Health Commissioner Abubakar Labaran Yusuf told IRIN.
“This shooting is a serious threat to polio immunization in Kano,” Aminu Ahmed Tudunwada, head of Kano State Polio Victims Trust Association (KSPVTA), told IRIN. “It will take at least three months to get the programme back on track because vaccinators are now scared of going out to do their work.”
Polio vaccinator Naja’atu Usman, 21, was shot but survived the attack. Her elder brother said his sister would continue her work to eradicate polio when she recovered. “When she fully recovers we will encourage her to continue because polio eradication campaign is a noble undertaking,” he told IRIN.
The vaccinators had just finished a four-day polio immunization campaign in two districts of Kano State and were about to start a one-day mop-up exercise to reach children missed in the initial round.
Health workers were trying to vaccinate 90 percent of all children under five to build up “herd immunity”, or a group’s ability to withstand an epidemic.
Nigeria, alongside Pakistan and Afghanistan, is one of three countries still considered to have endemic polio. Of the 222 polio cases recorded worldwide in 2012, 121 were from Nigeria, according to the WHO.
Resistance to polio campaigns
In the past, clerics have claimed polio vaccines contained the AIDS virus, while Kano residents told IRIN they did not understand the emphasis on polio when they lacked basic medicines such as for treating malaria in their children.
There is also a logic to resistance to polio campaigns in northern Nigeria if one addresses the context, writes political economist and researcher at Harvard University, Shelby Grossman.
For instance, vaccinators are not always trained health professionals and go door-to-door to administer vaccines, rather than providing them in health centres where people expect medical care; the campaign has been centred on the Muslim north rather than the Christian south; in 2005 at least 100 children were paralysed by a vaccine-induced polio outbreak; and the word for polio in local language Haussa is `shan inna’, which literally means “to drink blood”, and is known as a spirit that consumes limbs - thus many root the disease in a spiritual, rather than a bio-medical problem.
Kano State government suspended polio immunization between August 2003 and September 2004 due to allegations by Muslim clerics that the vaccine could render girls infertile as part of a US-led plot to depopulate Africa.
The suspension contributed to the spreading of the polio virus to 17 countries that had been declared polio-free, including Sudan, Angola, Chad, Niger, Central African Republic, Somalia and Democratic Republic of Congo, according to WHO.
Radio journalists accused
The killings of the polio workers came two days after Kano-based Wazobia FM radio broadcast a popular programme called Sandar Girma, in which journalists accused traditional chiefs and government officials of taking money from the West to force on them a polio campaign that had harmful consequences, reviving conspiracy theories surrounding polio campaigns.
On 10 February police in Kano questioned those involved in the programme, releasing them the following day. Although there was no proof to link the journalists with the deadly attacks, the police accused them of airing a programme that incited the killings.
Meanwhile, Nigerian officials have vowed to push on with the polio eradication campaign.
Nigeria’s junior health minister and head of the presidential committee on polio eradication, Ali Pate, led a federal government delegation to Kano on a condolence visit over the attacks. "We will not be deterred... We will continue helping children by protecting them from a disease that can be prevented," he told a gathering of officials and traditional chiefs.