22 February 2013

Nigeria: Brutal Killing of Polio Immunization Workers

The killing of nine health workers in two separate but clearly coordinated attacks in Kano City on February 8 marked a new low in irresponsibility that has become the lot of our society in recent times. Gunmen targeted health workers nearly all of them women, as they were preparing to set out for their rounds of polio immunization as part of a last-ditch effort to wipe out the polio virus from the face of the earth.

The attacks were launched at two locations in the city, Hotoro and Unguwa Uku. No one has as yet claimed responsibility for this dastardly act, the very first time in our history that health workers have been targeted by gunmen as they were carrying out a very important public health work.

Even though the attackers have not been identified, it is fairly easy to see what the motive for the attacks could be. In many parts of Northern Nigeria, there is resistance to administration of the oral polio vaccine. This misguided and ill-informed stance has been fuelled by claims of some people, including some clerics, that the vaccine contains an anti-fertility agent that is meant to reduce the population of Muslim lands, claims that have been comprehensively dismissed by the federal and state government health authorities and the Jama'atu Nasril Islam.

In the wake of the Kano killing of health workers, the police arrested and are prosecuting a reporter and a program presenter of Wazobia Radio who the authorities have charged to court for alleged incitement because of a program they broadcast only hours before the attack.

The effort to make polio only the second disease in human history to be completely eradicated, after smallpox, is a very laudable one that has received the support of the Nigerian government and also of responsible traditional and religious authorities. Polio is a debilitating disease that could cause life-long paralysis especially in children less than five years of age. No one can deny that the Northern part of the country has the preponderance of such cruelly crippled persons, all of it attributable to the existence in the region of the wild polio virus.

A cursory survey of the streets of Nigerian cities such as Lagos and Kano reveals that a disproportionate number of the persons crippled by polio, and who resort to begging for their livelihood, come from the region. The fact that far fewer persons from Southern Nigeria get stricken by polio due to the smooth nature of polio vaccination campaigns there is sufficient warning that the North must take this matter very seriously.

Instead, there are persons who, despite overwhelming evidence that roundly debunks their stand, still indulge in inciting vulnerable people to reject vaccination for their children with false claims that it reduces fertility of anyone at a time when our population is still growing at more than 3% annually. Some of the reasons advanced by the cynics may sound plausible on the face of it, but only on the face of it. They ask, for example, why government and international donors pay so much attention to polio when it is less of a killer than malaria, typhoid and HIV. The truth is that the authorities are paying attention to those problems too, and much more money is actually being spent on malaria and HIV treatment than on polio. The difference is that there is no viable treatment for polio once it cripples a victim; the best treatment is prevention. Here also is a chance to wipe this disease off the face of the Earth. This chance should be grabbed now so that the nation has one less debilitating disease to contend with.

The authorities should continue, with the help of traditional and enlightened religious authorities, the essential task of enlightening people on the importance of seeing to the success of wiping polio off the face of the earth. Yet, if the efforts are continually sabotaged by misguided elements even if they pretend to be enlightened themselves, it is now time to deal firmly with such people. There are adequate laws in place to punish anyone who sabotages public health programs for their own nefarious ends. It is such cruelly misguided activity that ultimately led to the killing of the nine polio vaccination workers. The authorities should draw up a plan to compensate the families of the slain women who laid down their lives in the service of nation.

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