The polio threat

Medicine Health workers are making a push to eradicate the virus worldwide, but Islamic militants threaten to end their work | Jamie Dean

The polio threat

VULNERABLE: A 12-year-old Afghan boy suffering from polio waits for treatment at a Red Cross center in Kabul.
Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

Medical workers seeking to eradicate the world’s last vestiges of polio face a deadly threat of their own: Islamist militants seeking to eradicate them.

In the past three months, assailants in Nigeria and Pakistan have killed more than two dozen health workers administering polio vaccinations in some of the only places in the world that still host the virus. Militants have claimed the vaccination campaigns are a Western plot to spy on or sterilize Muslims. (A Nigerian cleric once said the vaccinations could cause AIDS.)

The new surge of attacks comes as philanthropists launch a campaign to eradicate polio by 2018: On Feb. 28, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a $100 million donation to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help the group’s efforts to eradicate polio in the next six years.

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Two days earlier, a gunman in Pakistan opened fire on two women administering polio vaccines in a house on the outskirts of Madran. The women escaped uninjured, but their guard died in the assault. In early February, gunmen on motorbikes in northern Nigeria killed at least nine health workers offering polio vaccinations.

Authorities have linked such attacks to Islamist militant groups like the Taliban in Pakistan and Boko Haram in Nigeria. (Boko Haram killed hundreds of Christians in Nigeria last year in its attempt to impose Sharia law in the north.)

The resistance comes as polio infections reach an all-time low worldwide. The virus afflicted some 350,000 victims in 125 countries as recently as 1988. After a massive, two-decade effort to combat the disease through vaccinations, health officials reported 225 cases in 2012.

Officials in India—once considered the country with the most difficult polio problem to manage—declared the nation polio-free last year. Health workers say the disease is now endemic in only three countries: Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

Philanthropists like Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg haven’t spoken out widely about the Islamist threat to their efforts, but leaders at the World Health Organization announced they would meet in Cairo in early March to discuss how to address the attacks.

Some health workers have called for global outrage over the Islamist attacks on some of the world’s most vulnerable populations. Last year, a Taliban commander in Pakistan banned polio vaccinations for 161,000 children in his region, and said the ban would continue until the United States stopped drone attacks in northern Pakistan. In the same region, Pakistanis also fed suspicion of Western vaccination programs after it was widely reported that the CIA used a fake vaccination program in 2011 to collect DNA samples from residents in Osama bin Laden’s suspected compound.

Arthur Caplan, director of medical ethics at New York University, called on Western political and religious leaders to condemn bans on polio vaccinations. “The silence over this ban sends a very loud message that killing and disabling kids is an acceptable strategy in war,” Caplan wrote. “It isn’t.”

For now, health workers continue to brave serious danger to administer polio vaccines in the world’s remaining hot spots. They know the work is critical: If polio isn’t eradicated, it can resurge at any time.

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