Islamists kill health workers in Nigeria

Sat, Feb 9, 2013, 00:00

Nine health workers administering a polio vaccination programme in northern Nigeria were murdered yesterday by gunmen on motorbikes.

No one claimed responsibility for the attack in the city of Kano, but Islamist militant group Boko Haram, a sect that has condemned the use of what it sees as Western medicine, has been blamed for carrying out a spate of assaults on security forces in the city in recent weeks.

Some influential Muslim leaders in Kano openly oppose polio vaccinations, saying they are a conspiracy against Muslim children. The attacks will hit efforts by global health organisations to clear Nigeria’s mostly Muslim north of polio, a virus that can cause irreversible paralysis within hours of infection.

It is the second time this year that polio workers have come under attack by Islamist militants after gunmen killed aid workers tackling the disease in Pakistan last month.

“Gunmen on bikes opened fire on a health centre in the Hotoro district killing seven, while an attack on Zaria Road area of the city claimed two lives,” said a police spokesman.

Kano residents said soldiers had cordoned off the areas attacked and movement was being restricted in the city.

Boko Haram killed hundreds last year as part of its campaign to impose Islamic law, or sharia, on a country of 160 million split roughly equally between Christians and Muslims.

Threat to stability

The group is seen as the most serious threat to the stability of Africa’s top energy producer, and Western governments fear the country could become a base for operations of Islamist groups in the Sahara linked to al-Qaeda.

President Goodluck Jonathan has highlighted links between Boko Haram and Saharan Islamists and said relationship justified his decision to join efforts by French and West African forces to fight militants in Mali last month.

In 2003, northern Nigeria’s Muslim leaders opposed polio vaccinations, saying they could cause infertility and AIDS.

Their campaign against the treatments was blamed for a resurgence of the disease in parts of Nigeria and other African countries previously declared polio-free.

Polio, a virus that attacks the nervous system, crippled thousands of people every year in rich nations until the 1950s. As a result of vaccination, it is now endemic in only three countries: Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan.

According to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, there were 121 new cases of polio in Nigeria last year, 58 in Pakistan and 37 in Afghanistan.

“This is certainly a setback for polio eradication in Nigeria, but not a stop,” said Oyewale Tomori, a campaigner for polio eradication in Nigeria.

“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.”

– (Reuters)