Published: December 24, 2012
How in the world did something as innocuous as the sugary pinkpolio vaccine turn into a flash point between Islamic militants and Western “crusaders,” flaring into a confrontation so ugly that teenage girls — whose only “offense” is that they are protecting children — are gunned down in the streets?
Nine vaccine workers were killed in Pakistan last week in a terrorist campaign that brought the work of 225,000 vaccinators to a standstill. Suspicion fell immediately on factions of the Pakistani Taliban that have threatened vaccinators in the past, accusing them of being American spies.
Polio eradication officials have promised to regroup and try again. But first they must persuade the killers to stop shooting workers and even guarantee safe passage.
That has been done before, notably in Afghanistan in 2007, when Mullah Muhammad Omar, spiritual head of the Afghan Taliban, signed a letter of protection for vaccination teams. But in Pakistan, the killers may be breakaway groups following no one’s rules.
Vaccination efforts are also under threat in other Muslim regions, although not this violently yet.
In Nigeria, another polio-endemic country, the new Islamic militant group Boko Haram has publicly opposed it, although the only killings that the news media have linked to polio were those of two police officers escorting vaccine workers. Boko Haram has killed police officers on other missions, unrelated to polio vaccinations.
In Mali, extremists took over half of the country in May, declaring an Islamic state. Vaccination is not an issue yet, but Mali had polio cases as recently as mid-2011, and the virus sometimes circulates undetected.
Resistance to polio vaccine springs from a combination of fear, often in marginalized ethnic groups, and brutal historical facts that make that fear seem justified. Unless it is countered, and quickly, the backlash threatens the effort to eradicate polio in the threecountries where it remains endemic: Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria.
In 1988, long before donors began delivering mosquito nets, measles shots, AIDS pills,condoms, deworming drugs and other Western medical goods to the world’s most remote villages, Rotary International dedicated itself to wiping out polio, and trained teams to deliver the vaccine.
But remote villages are often ruled by chiefs or warlords who are suspicious not only of Western modernity, but of their own governments.
The Nigerian government is currently dominated by Christian Yorubas. More than a decade ago, when word came from the capital that all children must swallow pink drops to protect them against paralysis, Muslim Hausas in the far-off north could be forgiven for reacting the way the fundamentalist Americans of the John Birch Society did in the 1960s when the government in far-off Washington decreed that, for the sake of children’s teeth, all drinking water should have fluoride.
The northerners already had grievances. In 1996, the drug company Pfizer tested its newantibiotic, Trovan, during a meningitis outbreak there. Eleven children died. Although Pfizer still says it was not to blame, the trial had irregularities, and last year the company began making payments to victims.
Other rumors also spring from real events.
In Pakistan, resistance to vaccination, low over all, is concentrated in Pashtun territory along the Afghan border and in Pashtun slums in large cities. Pashtuns are the dominant tribe in Afghanistan but a minority in Pakistan among Punjabis, Sindhis, Baluchis and other ethnic groups. Many are Afghan refugees and are often poor and dismissed as medieval and lawless.
Pakistan’s government is friendly with the United States while the Pashtuns’ territory in border areas has been heavily hit by American Taliban-hunting drones, which sometimes kill whole families.
So, when the Central Intelligence Agency admitted sponsoring a hepatitis vaccination campaign as a ruse to get into a compound in Pakistan to confirm that Osama bin Laden was there, and the White House said it had contemplated wiping out the residence with a drone missile, it was not far-fetched for Taliban leaders to assume that other vaccinators worked for the drone pilots.
Even in friendly areas, the vaccine teams have protocols that look plenty suspicious. If a stranger knocked on a door in Brooklyn, asked how many children under age 5 were at home, offered to medicate them, and then scribbled in chalk on the door how many had accepted and how many refused — well, a parent might worry.
In modern medical surveys — though not necessarily on polio campaigns — teams carry GPS devices so they can find houses again. Drones use GPS coordinates.
The warlords of Waziristan made the connection specific, barring all vaccination there until Predator drones disappeared from the skies.
Dr. Bruce Aylward, a Canadian who is chief of polio eradication for the World Health Organization, expressed his frustration at the time, saying, “They know we don’t have any control over drone strikes.”
The campaign went on elsewhere in Pakistan — until last week.
The fight against polio has been hampered by rumors that the vaccine contains pork or the virus that causes AIDS, or is a plot to sterilize Muslim girls. Even the craziest-sounding rumors have roots in reality.
The AIDS rumor is a direct descendant of Edward Hooper’s 1999 book, “The River,” which posited the theory — since discredited — that H.I.V. emerged when an early polio vaccine supposedly grown in chimpanzee kidney cells contaminated with the simian immunodeficiency virus was tested in the Belgian Congo.
The sterilization claim was allegedly first made on a Nigerian radio station by a Muslim doctor upset that he had been passed over for a government job. The “proof” was supposed to be lab tests showing it contained estrogen, a birth control hormone.
The vaccine virus is grown in a broth of live cells; fetal calf cells are typical. They may be treated with a minute amount of a digestive enzyme, trypsin — one source of which is pig pancreas, which could account for the pork rumor.
In theory, a polio eradicator explained, if a good enough lab tested the vaccine used at the time the rumor started, it might have detected estrogen from the calf’s mother, but it would have been far less estrogen than is in mother’s milk, which is not accused of sterilizing anyone. The trypsin is supposed to be washed out.
In any case, polio vaccine is now bought only from Muslim countries like Indonesia, and Muslim scholars have ruled it halal — the Islamic equivalent of kosher.
Reviving the campaign will mean quelling many rumors. It may also require adding other medical “inducements,” like deworming medicine, mosquito nets or vitamin A, whose immediate benefits are usually more obvious.
But changing mind-sets will be a crucial step, said Dr. Aylward, who likened the shootings of the girls to those of the schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn.
More police involvement — what he called a “bunkerized approach” — would not solve either America’s problem or Pakistan’s, he argued. Instead, average citizens in both countries needed to rise up, reject the twisted thinking of the killers and “generate an understanding in the community that this kind of behavior is not acceptable.”