By Emma Batha
The killing of nine polio health workers in northern Nigeria is not just a tragedy for the victims’ families but will likely set back global efforts to consign this hideous disease to history.
No one has claimed responsibility for Friday's shootings, but over the weekend we received a comment from a reader that repeated accusations that the West is using vaccines to sterilise Africans.
The sterilisation myth is a common one which has jeopardised vaccination programmes in both Nigeria and Pakistan, where at least 16 polio workers - some of them teenage girls - have been killed in a string of recent attacks.
Commenting on the Nigerian attacks, the reader asked: “What do you expect when Gates and his … cohorts have openly stated that they intend to reduce population through vaccines?”
The full comment was incendiary so we didn’t publish it, but it did make me stop. This was no semi-literate rant - it appeared to come from someone well-educated, and it gave me a hint as to why this sterilisation myth refuses to go away.
Gates has indeed linked vaccines to reducing population growth. But I believe his argument goes roughly like this:
Vaccinating children means they stand a much better chance of making it to adulthood. Parents who are confident their children will reach adulthood generally choose to have fewer children and can therefore devote more of their family resources to each child. This means each child will be better nourished and better educated. Healthy, educated populations boost development.
It hadn't struck me before, but perhaps misinterpretation of his and similar comments linking vaccines to reducing population growth is helping to fuel this sterilisation myth.
Gates spelled out his argument again last month when he gave a televised lecture in London entitled The Impatient Optimist in which he explained why he is now devoting most of his time to ridding the world of polio.
The highly infectious disease is caused by a virus which invades the nervous system. It can lead to total paralysis within hours of infection, and can be fatal.
In 1988, the virus was still circulating in 125 countries and paralysed 350,000 people. Thanks to extensive vaccination programmes it is now only endemic in three countries - Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
“We are working to wipe the virus off the face of the earth, and we have almost succeeded,” Gates said in London.
“Fewer than 250 children were paralysed last year. Stopping these last cases of polio in these last countries, however, is among the most difficult tasks the world has ever assigned itself. It is also among the most important.”
Last week’s killings are believed to be the first time polio workers have been attacked in Nigeria, but opposition to vaccination campaigns is nothing new. In 2003, Muslim leaders in northern Nigeria said polio inoculations could cause infertility and AIDS.
Their opposition was blamed for a resurgence of polio in parts of Nigeria. But diseases do not respect geographical boundaries and polio promptly spread to other African countries which had already eliminated the virus and were forced to wage war on polio for a second time.
In Pakistan, Taliban militants have denied responsibility for the polio killings there, but they have repeatedly said the vaccination drive is a plot to sterilise Muslims or spy on them.
It is now incumbent on religious leaders and local authorities in all three countries where polio persists to debunk the sterilisation myth once and for all, as well as all other rumours that stop parents getting their children vaccinated.
The attacks in Pakistan and Nigeria should spur everyone to redouble efforts to stamp out the disease.
Oyewale Tomori, a campaigner in Nigeria, told Reuters the killing of the health workers would set back polio eradication, but would not stop it.
"The best we can do is to work harder and see the end of polio ... so their loss will not end as a useless sacrifice," he added.
Commenting on the killing of vaccinators in Pakistan, Gates made a similar point.
“They are heroes, and there are two ways to memorialise them,” he said. “The first is to do our best to ensure the safety of those who continue the campaigns. And the second is that we have to finish the task they gave their lives for.”