New waves of religious extremist violence have come crashing down on Nigeria and Pakistan, among other places, where women volunteering to administer polio vaccinations have become the target of suspected terrorist groups in increasing scale.
Boko Haram, a terror group whose name means “Western education is sin,” is suspected of shooting and killing at least nine women in northern Nigeria today. The women were volunteers taking part in a polio vaccination drive, as the disease remains endemic in that nation.
In Pakistan, militants took the lives of nine more women in December. The women were pursuing a vaccination drive similar to the one in Nigeria, and the attacks have caused the United Nations to suspend its anti-polio work there on Wednesday, according to the Associated Press. Government officials in Pakistan said that they believe a Taliban faction in Mohmand was responsible for at least some of the shootings. However, the group has remained silent about the attacks, although it’s been speculated that this is only an attempt to taper public backlash.
The female volunteers, regarded as heroes in the eyes of residents, make up the core of the public health initiatives surrounding the polio endemic, as women are more readily entrusted than men are, to enter into the homes of residents’ and administer the life-saving vaccine to their community’s children. Armed with a clipboard, refrigerated vaccine boxes and the gift of reassurance, the women travel door to door, often in pairs, vaccinating up to 200 children daily. While the work of female volunteers is critical to the immunization efforts, there efforts have there other public health benefits as well.
According to a New York Times article, the immunization drive, involving to 225,000 vaccination workers, drove the number of newly infected polio victims down to 52 in Pakistan. However, obstacles such as natural disaster, opposition from conservative clerics, and sudden outbreaks of new strains of the disease, have caused major setbacks to the progress of the immunization campaigns.
Terrorist groups such as Boko Haram probably play the largest role in setting back the success of the campaigns though, as this kind of targeted violence is arguably far more devastating, especially in the long-run, than setting off a bomb in a public place. Killing immunization volunteers is preventing people — often children — from being immunized, subsequently making them more susceptible to the disease and aiding in the spread of it.
In places like Pakistan, which is one of three countries in the world where polio is still endemic, there were 198 new infections counted last year — the highest rate in the world. The immunization campaign simply cannot afford to lose any more of its volunteers.
According to the New York Times, militant commanders have been criticizing polio vaccination campaigns since 2007, when a radical preacher named Maulvi Fazlullah claimed that the vaccines were part of a plot to sterilize Muslim children. More recently, Taliban commanders in North Waziristan have politicized their complaint, stating that the immunization can only resume when American drones stop killing their comrades. The flames of suspicion amongst the immunization opposition have also been fanned by the revelation of the CIA’s use of a Pakistani doctor, Shakil Afridi, to run a hepatitis B vaccination scheme in order to spy on and capture Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad in 2011.
In Nigeria, suspicion began in 2003 when a Kano physician heading the Supreme Council for Shariah in Nigeria said the vaccines were "corrupted and tainted by evildoers from America and their Western allies." Just last year, Nigeria registered 121 new polio infections, accounting for more than half of all cases reported around the world, according to data from the World Health Organization.
While the terror groups seem to associate targeting their immunization volunteers with promoting an anti-west agenda, the attacks are actually devastating at a local level — further deteriorating a faltering public health system and the lives of local women and children.
The long term effects of these kind of attacks are far more damaging than the conventional attacks that terrorists are known to carry out, as restricting the progress of the immunization program has the power of wiping out a community’s entire female and child population and could work to undermine terrorists’ anti-West propaganda.