It is hard to imagine a more devastating tragedy for a child in the developing world than to be crippled for life by polio. Given the success of the international vaccination effort, it is also increasingly unnecessary.
However in 2012 Nigeria recorded 122 new cases of polio. Nigeria had been one of only three countries where the disease was still endemic (the other two were Afghanistan and Pakistan). But now Nigeria is joined by another African country – Somalia. Eunice Kilonzo in The East African reports 191 polio infections in Somalia. The media is also reporting small outbreaks elsewhere in east Africa, often associated with Somali refugee movements.
Somalia appears to have the largest known reservoir of unvaccinated children in any specific geographic area worldwide. It has been estimated that there are up to a million Somali children who were never vaccinated between 2008 and 2012.
I previously blogged on some of the reasons behind the persistence of polio in Nigeria and its reappearance in Somalia. Since those blogs were posted, polio appears to have spread in Somalia, but there are signs of progress for northern Nigerian polio eradication.
Both northern Nigeria and Somalia are venues of a deep distrust of the West, and particularly the United States. Arguments are made that wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the embargo against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq that deprived Iraqi children of access to certain pharmaceuticals, and the recent sanctions against Iran prove that the United States is at war with Islam. Radicals argue that polio vaccination is somehow "western" and therefore un-Islamic.
Boko Haram, the jihadist insurrection in northern Nigeria, feeds on popular suspicion of the polio vaccination campaign. It claimed responsibility for the murder of ten polio vaccinators in February 2013. In Somalia, al-Shabaab, another jihadist terrorist movement, has urged the boycott of the vaccination. A Japanese-funded polio vaccination campaign over the summer was “derailed and watered down” by al-Shabaab’s hostile propaganda, according to the media.
In Africa, polio appears to be a companion of jihadist insurrection, terrorism, and refugee movements. So long as they persist, the international community’s polio eradication campaign will be challenged.