Nine women working to immunize children against polio were killed Friday when gunmen opened fire on them in northern Nigeria, Kano state police said.
Women involved in the vaccination drive were targeted in two areas of the northern city of Kano, news reports said. Witnesses told the Associated Press that the death toll appeared to be higher than what police had reported, saying eight were killed in one attack and four were dead in another.
One injured woman told Agence France-Presse that two men stormed into a clinic and started shooting, then set a curtain on fire and fled, shutting the door. “We summoned courage and broke the door because we realized they wanted to burn us alive,” the woman told AFP from her hospital bed. She declined to give her name.
Islamic extremists were suspected of being behind the shootings, which echo a string of attacks in December on vaccination workers in Pakistan.
The northern stretches of Nigeria have been menaced by Boko Haram, a radical militant group that has attacked schools, churches and mosques and assassinated politicians and religious leaders.
Conservative Muslim clerics in Nigeria’s north have long been leery of immunizations. Polio exploded there a decade ago after imams called for a halt to immunizing of children, claiming the vaccinations were a Western plot to sterilize Muslim girls. Though the boycott was later dropped after Nigerian officials agreed to test vaccines in a Muslim country, the resistance lingers.
Suspicion has been fueled in part by deaths and disabilities after an earlier Pfizer drug trial. Pfizer said the deaths were caused by the meningitis the drugs were treating, but it agreed to pay up to $35 million to Nigerian families in a settlement.
Most people in northern Nigeria, including most Muslims, support immunizations, “but there is a strong element of cultural resistance to polio vaccines that predated Boko Haram,” said Paul Lubeck, associate director of African studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “What Boko Haram has now done is to take that fear and use their assassination methods against health workers -- that’s a new threshold of violence.”
Boko Haram turning its guns on vaccination workers “is not particularly surprising,” said Bronwyn Bruton, deputy director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council. “The only thing they seem to stand for is the rejection of any kind of Western value.”
Health officials did not answer calls or immediately respond to an email seeking comment on how Friday’s attacks might affect the effort to stamp out polio. A top health official told Nigerian media last week that “not a single case of polio” had been recorded in two months.
Nigeria reported 121 cases of polio last year, more than any other country, according to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. It is one of only three nations in the world where polio remains endemic; the other two are Pakistan and Afghanistan. The persistence of polio in Nigeria has allowed the crippling disease to spread to other countries in the past, reinfecting areas where polio had been wiped out.