Gunmen suspected to be Boko Haram militants have shot dead at least nine female polio vaccination workers in northern Nigeria. The incident brings back to attention rumors that the vaccination drive is part of a Western plot to sterilize Nigerian women.
AP reports the first attack occurred on Friday morning in Kano's Hotoro Hayi neighborhood. The gunmen suspected to be Boko Haram militants, reportedly arrived on a three-wheel taxi and opened fire, killing at least eight female vaccination workers.
The second attack reportedly occurred in the Unguwa Uku neighborhood. Gunmen shot dead four people in the attack, AP reports witnesses said.
However, AP notes a conflict in the reports of the death toll. While the Kano state police spokesman Musa Magaji Majia, said only nine people, all women giving oral vaccines to children were killed in the attacks, a local hospital reportedly said it received only two corpses from the attack that occurred in Unguwa Uku .
However, Digital Journal reporter spoke to a Nigerian Muslim Taju in Ibadan, who pointed out that the conflict could readily be explained by supposing that the relatives of the other dead simply did not bring the bodies to the hospital to establish an official count. Taju explains that unlike Christians, Muslims bury their dead within hours in accordance with Muslim tradition. Muslim families, therefore, often do not take their dead to hospital mortuaries.
AP also notes that the Nigerian authorities often under-report casualties for political reasons.
There has been an aggressive drive to eradicate polio in that part of the country in the last two decades. To facilitate the program, women vaccination workers were recruited to go from house to house to carry out the vaccination as Muslim men, especially those who keep wives in purdah isolation, are more likely to allow women vaccination workers to interact with their wives and vaccinate their children.
But the efforts at an aggressive vaccination program to stamp out polio in northern Nigeria are been stymied by persistent rumors that the international organizations in the program are involved with Western governments in a clandestine plot to sterilize all women in the northern states. Digital Journal reporter recently met a northern Nigerian couple employed at a chicken farm in Ibadan who refused entreaties to have their newborn daughter vaccinated at a primary health care center in Akobo area on the excuse that vaccination would make the girl "unable to have babies" when she is older.
The mother, known to her co-workers at the chicken farm in Elewi Odo as "Hajia," finally agreed to vaccinate the child after Digital Journal reporter won her confidence and arranged for her to visit the health center and interview the health workers there. Hajia's case illustrates the pervasive suspicion of the motive underlying the aggressive polio eradication drive in northern Nigeria.
Rumors about a Western plot to sterilize women through polio vaccines originated from a comment by a local physician, member of the Supreme Council for Shariah in Nigeria, who claimed that the vaccines were contaminated by people from the West with "evil" intentions. However, the allegation was unsubstantiated. Recently, a radio program in Kano city referred to fears that people have about the vaccines following a report about a man who refused to allow his children to be vaccinated. Local media reports claim Kano State police arrested the producer of the radio program.
Suspicions about the polio vaccines may also be related to the recent deaths and disabling effects of a Pfizer drug trial against meningitis. Conservative northern clerics have been known to preach against acceptance of vaccines at Friday mosque services. The call by northern imams (religious clerics) for an end to the immunization of children led to a massive boycott about a decade ago. The clerics only reluctantly agreed to encourage people to accept the vaccines after government officials said they had tested them and found they were not contaminated with sterilizing substances. But as Hajia's case illustrates, suspicion lingers among the local population.
Meanwhile, US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, condemned the killings. AP reports she said: "They were engaged in life-saving work, trying to vaccinate children. Any violence that prevents children from receiving basic life-saving vaccines is absolutely unacceptable wherever it happens."
This is not the first attack targeting polio vaccination workers in the northern Nigerian city of Kano. In October, two officers deployed to guard a vaccination center were shot dead.
While Boko Haram has not claimed responsibility for the attacks, the group whose name "Boko Haram" translates roughly in northern Nigerian Hausa language as "Western education is forbidden," is known to oppose the influence of "Western culture" in Nigeria, especially among Muslims. The radical militant group has also been involved in violent insurgency against the federal government under the pretext of imposing Sharia law in Nigeria. However, Nigerians generally believe that the group has a hidden political agenda that goes beyond religious zeal for the Islamic legal code.
AP count estimates that at least 792 people were killed in Boko Haram attacks last year. About 185 people died in a single massive attack in Kano.
The drive to eradicate polio in Nigeria arises from the fact that the country, specifically the northern states, rank among the few regions in the world where polio is stil endemic. The other countries are Afghanistan and Pakistan. AP reports that last year Nigerian officially registered 121 new polio infections more than half of all cases reported globally