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No excuse for extremist killing of polio workers

Fundamentalists who kill or intimidate polio-vaccine workers are committing a terrible crime against the children of their own countries.

Of all the crimes and outrages inflicted on the innocent by different fundamentalist groups, one of the most shameful is the deliberate killing, in several countries, of public health workers striving to eradicate polio.

At least 105 cases of this dreadful disease have been confirmed this year in Somalia, where the Islamist group Al Shabaab, which controls much of the countryside, bans and has killed medical aid workers. Last week the charity Medecins Sans Frontieres withdrew from Somalia because of “extreme attacks” on its staff.

In recent years Islamist groups in Nigeria and Pakistan, too, have killed vaccination workers. They also spread absurd rumours that the vaccine, given to children under 5, is meant to to cause sterility or Aids.

The Somalia outbreak is truly tragic: just six years ago the whole Horn of Africa was declared free of polio. Indeed the whole world has been cleansing itself of the disease since the late 1950s, when a practical vaccine went into production. In 1988, when the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) was launched, 350,000 cases were reported worldwide; last year there were just 223 known cases. This is a true triumph, because there is no cure for polio, which attacks mainly children. Polio virus is widespread and can be harmless, but when it enters the bloodstream it can cause grave muscle weakness, deformity, paralysis and death.

Eradicating this scourge demands vaccination, a routine matter in developed countries but a challenge where governance is weak. The disease is now endemic only in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria; we can only hope that Somalia does not have to go back onto that list.

Last April in Abu Dhabi, leaders of the GPEI – a joint effort of the World Health Organisation, governments and charities, notably the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – convened to focus on a final push. At that meeting Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, pledged an additional Dh440 million to the work.

All the world, it seems, is united in this effort – except for fanatical groups like Boko Haram and Al Shabaab. There is no religious objection to vaccination, and what objection can there be to healthy children? It appears that these groups oppose medical aid purely as a means of assuring their own monopoly of power.

To a lawyer, killing polio-vaccine workers may not qualify as a “crime against humanity” under the International Criminal Court’s Rome
Statute. But what other name, in common sense, can we give to such an outrage?

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