Nigeria is on the verge of eliminating polio, but Boko Haram is standing in the way.
Using violence and misinformation, the ISIS-linked militant group has hampered efforts to get every child in the country vaccinated against polio, leaving nearly 66,000 children in remote villages in northern Nigeria without the vaccine, according to Nigerian federal estimates.
But public health officials are pushing back, teaming up with the military and volunteers who have put their lives on the line to get vaccines to everyone.
Boko Haram has controlled territory in northern Nigeria since around 2003, when they implemented Sharia, or Islamic law, in the region. As part of an effort to dispel Western views, the group — whose name roughly translates to “Western education is sinful” — spread vaccine misinformation, claiming that the vaccine could lead to infertility and bone injuries.
The group has also used violence to deter vaccinators. In 2013, at least nine vaccination team members in the state of Kano were murdered, and witnesses pointed to Boko Haram as the culprit.
The group’s efforts worked: In 2016, after nearly three years without an outbreak, polio resurfaced in the country — a sobering reminder that public health efforts, even when backed by strong leadership, millions of dollars in funding and years of planning, can be quickly undone.
“In 2016, we almost disrupted the transmission of polio, but our efforts were derailed by insurgency groups in the northeast,” said Dr. Ngozi Nwosu, the national coordinator for the polio transition planning committee of the National Primary Health Care Development Agency. “We don’t want that to happen again.”
That means public health officials need to get the vaccine to kids in remote villages in Boko Haram-controlled territory.