As people the world over have observed in recent years, religious extremism is manifest in many ways. Bombs small enough to fit in one’s hand and as big as commercial jetliners have been used to kill, maim and instill terror in innocent people, to make ideological statements and to control entire populations.
Perhaps in that context the killings of nine people today in Nano, one of northern Nigeria’s most populous cities, do little more than add modestly to the number of victims. Chances are, however, that the murders, by members of a radical Islamic sect, will inflate the total by more than the nine people murdered. That’s because the killers — gunmen in three-wheeled taxis in two separate attacks — slew public health workers who were distributing polio vaccines in one of the few countries in the entire world where polio remains an endemic disease.
The public health workers’ offense was using “Western” medicine to keep poor, ignorant people from becoming crippled or dying from one of humanity’s great scourges. Polio has no cure, but vaccines can prevent its spread. The Islamic group that carried out the shootings, Boko Haram, wants nothing less than to impose Islamic law — sharia — throughout Nigeria, a country of 160 million people about evenly divided between Muslims and Christians.
As long as a decade ago, Muslim clerics in northern Nigeria took positions against polio vaccinations. Out of their own ignorance or to maintain control of a populace that didn’t know better, they warned that the vaccinations would cause AIDS and infertility.
Sadly, their efforts and those of groups like Boko Haram have contributed to new surges of polio in Nigeria as well as in neighboring nations that had been rid of the disease.
Despite such pockets of resistance, an impressive collaboration involving the the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, Unicef, Rotary International, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and others has made great strides against polio in recent years. As recently as 1988, there were 350,000 new polio cases worldwide; that figure was in the hundreds last year. Even with the remarkable progress, public health experts warn than unless polio is eradicated — once and for all — it could surge again, crippling hundreds of thousands of people every year.
That’s too high a price for any group of extremists to demand.