Earlier this month came discouraging news of an attack on two health facilities in which 10 health workers and a patient were killed in the city of Kano, in northern Nigeria. This came less than two months after the tragedies in Pakistan, where nine women giving the polio vaccine to children were killed.
The unfortunate conclusion drawn by some is that Muslims do not want their children vaccinated. In fact, there are only three countries in the world where serious controversy remains about a vaccine that has been endorsed by Muslim organizations across the globe. The list of majority-Muslim countries that are now polio-free is long, and there is still hope that these crises can be resolved and polio eradicated in the near future.
India, which faced the same challenges as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria, has been polio-free for more than two years. But so long as neighboring countries are still polio-endemic, vaccinations have to be kept at very high levels to protect children.
In 1988, when the Global Polio Eradication Initiative began, 125 countries around the globe were polio-endemic, and more than 350,000 cases of polio had been officially documented. Now, barely 25 years later, only three countries remain polio-endemic, and total cases reported last year were only 223.
The world is so, so close to eradicating this terrible disease. All that is needed is for drops of the new bivalent polio vaccine to be placed into the mouths of young children, and they can be protected for life against a disease that has been killing and crippling children from the time of the pharaohs.
A sign of hope? Only two years ago, when there was resistance to vaccination of young children in Afghanistan, the leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Omar, issued a fatwa asking all parents to cooperate with vaccination efforts. The logic of his fatwa had to do with the responsibilities of parents to protect their children and the realization that the refusal to back efforts aimed at protecting the nation’s children would seriously compromise the legitimacy of the Taliban as participants in the future governance of their nation.
Can similar support be brokered for this effort with disaffected parties in Pakistan and Nigeria? No one has formally taken credit for the killings in either nation. This would not be the first time that a few extremists hijacked an effort and went beyond the bounds of what even their own membership can support.
Northern Nigeria has a learned Islamic tradition, dating back at least to the 15th century. Kano and other ancient cities have scholars who understand very well that Islam can be a powerful force for peace and that Islam has often been very open to other great world traditions. The ongoing controversy over Western education and influences is not unprecedented, but it does not characterize the Islamic tradition of northern Nigeria over past 500 years.
Please do not give up on Nigeria! In eradicating polio from Nigeria and Pakistan and Afghanistan, we’ll be protecting children into the future, but also building networks of cooperation toward a more peaceful, tolerant and productive future.
Charles Adams Cogan is an associate dean of admissions at Carleton College and one of thousands of Rotary volunteers who have worked on the polio eradication campaign over the past 25 years.