Militant Islamism and Vaccine Skepticism

Since 2012, the majority of new polio cases have occurred in countries that are home to Islamist insurgencies. Understanding the political dynamics that drive militants' hostility to vaccination efforts is crucial to eradicating the virus.

LONDON – We know how to eradicate polio. Since the 1980s, an international vaccination effort led by the World Health Organization has driven the virus to the cusp of extinction. A disease that killed or paralyzed a half-million people annually now infects only a few hundred.

What is standing in the way of the virus’s eradication is not medical or technical constraints, but political resistance to the vaccination effort. Indeed, the few areas where the virus continues to hold out share worrying similarities. Since 2012, 95% of polio cases have occurred in five countries – Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Somalia, and Syria – all of which are affected by Islamist insurgencies. In order to eradicate polio, we must understand this linkage.

Islamist opposition to vaccination programs is often attributed to the belief that vaccines are a Western conspiracy to harm Muslims, and that the vaccines sterilize children, are infected with HIV, or contain pork. But it is important to note that jihadists in Syria and Afghanistan have been largely supportive of polio vaccination campaigns. If the virus is to be defeated, we will have to move beyond caricatures of Islamists as violent zealots opposed to Western science and look closely at the specific political contexts in which the eradication effort has so far been unsuccessful.