A worldwide campaign begun in 1988 to eradicate the polio infection was on the verge of success when, early in 2003, a conspiracy theory took hold of the Muslim population in northern Nigeria. That conspiracy theory has single-handedly returned polio to epidemic proportions.
The theory's source seems to be a physician and the president of Nigeria's Supreme Council for Shari'a Law, Ibrahim Datti Ahmed, 68. Dr. Ahmed, an Islamist, accuses Americans of lacing the vaccine with an anti-fertility agent that sterilizes children (or, in an alternate theory, it infects them with AIDS) and considers them, according to John Murphy of the Baltimore Sun, "the worst criminals on Earth … Even Hitler was not as evil as that."
This fear of polio vaccines caught on because of the war in Iraq, explained a doctor with the World Health Organization. "If America is fighting people in the Middle East," goes the Islamist logic, "the conclusion is that they are fighting Muslims." Local imams repeated and spread the sterilization theory, which won wide acceptance despite vocal assurances to the contrary from the WHO, the Nigerian government, and many Nigerian doctors and scientists.
Ibrahim Shekarau, governor of Kano, one of the three Nigerian states that refused the polio vaccine, justified the decision not to vaccinate on the grounds that "it is a lesser of two evils to sacrifice two, three, four, five, even ten children than allow hundreds of thousands or possibly millions of girl-children likely to be rendered infertile."
The Baltimore Sun offers the example of a young Nigerian mother who rejected the polio vaccine for her child. The child contracted polio, and the mother was asked if she regretted her decision. Unhesitatingly, she replied, "No, I would do the same." Villagers saw the vaccination program as a threat and on occasion "chased, threatened and assaulted vaccinators. Frustrated, some vaccination teams dumped thousands of doses of the vaccine rather than face angry villagers."
By mid-2004 the conspiracy theory had jumped to India, where a health worker noted that in one slum, "many poor and ignorant women regard the anti-polio drops as a deceptive strategy to control the birth rate."
Such phobia about the West infecting Muslims with diseases is nothing new. In a 1997 book, I surveyed some earlier accusations:
the British imported cholera and malaria to Egypt after World War II. A British midwife who trained in the Kabylia province of Algeria got accused by his angry Algerian supervisor of working in league with the "white-coated saboteurs passing their hands from vagina to vagina, infecting my heroic people with syphilis!" An unnamed enemy—presumably American—infiltrated deadly diseases into Iraq via maggot-ridden cigarettes. Israel transmitted cancer to Palestinians by getting them to take dangerous factory jobs or subjecting them to phosphorous searches.
The polio-vaccine conspiracy theory has had direct consequences: Sixteen countries where polio had been eradicated have in recent months reported outbreaks of the disease – twelve in Africa (Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Sudan, and Togo) and four in Asia (India, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen). Yemen has had the largest polio outbreak, with more than 83 cases since April. The WHO calls this "a major epidemic."
The common element, the New York Times notes, is that incidents of polio are now located "almost exclusively in Muslim countries or regions." That's because, scientists hypothesize, the polio infection traveled from Nigeria in a uniquely Muslim way – via the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, which took place in January 2005. Testing confirms that all three Asian strains of the disease originated in northern Nigeria.
In response, the WHO is talking tough, as U.N. organizations too rarely do, complaining that Muslim governments have contributed a trivial US$3 million to the $4 billion anti-polio campaign and demanding more funds from them. David L. Heymann of the WHO also said: "It would be a good sign for Islamic countries to see other Islamic countries giving. But they've come in more slowly than we expected."
Additional money would help, yes, but more important is for Muslims themselves to argue against and defeat the conspiracy-theory mentality. This polio episode is but one example of how conspiracy theories originating in the Muslim world damage everyone, and Muslims first of all.
May 24, 2005 update: This entry builds on a detailed weblog entry on the subject, "Conspiracy Theories Keep Polio Alive." Please consult for details and updates.