Health Workers Gunned Down In Nigeria, Threatening Global Effort To Combat Polio

Child receives polio vaccine in Nigeria

Several health workers administering vaccines were shot dead in Nigeria today, part of a spread in violence threatening the tantalizingly close eradication of polio.

While the exact number of those dead is unclear — estimates on the ground vary from as many as twelve to as few as nine — there is a consensus growing about the identity of the group behind the attack:

No one claimed responsibility but the Islamist militant group Boko Haram, which has condemned the use of western medicine, has been blamed for a spate of assaults on security forces in the city in recent weeks.

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“Gunmen opened fire on a health centre in the Hotoro district, killing seven, while an attack on the Zaria Road area of the city claimed two lives,” said a police spokesman, Magaji Musa. “[The health workers] were working for the state government giving out polio vaccinations at the time of the attack.”

Boko Haram — which has referred to itself as the “Nigerian Taliban” — has been a thorn in the side of the Nigerian government for over a year now, launching attacks against government facilities and bombing multiple churches. Should they be behind today’s murders, it would be the first instance of their targeting health workers.

The attacks seem close in nature to a rash of killings that swept through Pakistan last month, killing over a dozen. Much as in that case, current reports indicate all of those killed in Nigeria on Friday were women. Unlike in Pakistan, however, there’s no CIA program to blame the workers for colluding with. Instead, the militants have blamed the vaccines for being a Western plot to sterilize young girls and causing AIDS, neither of which is remotely true.

Nigeria is one of the last remaining holdouts of polio on Earth, with only Pakistan and Afghanistan joining it in having regular significant outbreaks. In 2012, Nigeria had at least 121 cases of polio, by far the most in the world. Facilitating a drop in those numbers will require a near universal vaccination rate, one that is unlikely to occur with the threat of violence.

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