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The Shots Heard Around the World

From global-health success story to nightmare: How a worldwide effort to eradicate polio went from Jonas Salk to Islamic terrorist

Author: Laurie Garrett, Senior Fellow for Global Health
April 4, 2014
Foreign Policy

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New shots are jeopardizing humanity's battle to eradicate polio, and they don't include syringes or vaccines. Rather, they're the gunshots of Islamic terrorists.

The fight to eliminate polio is now imperiled, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), by "insecurity, targeted attacks on health workers and/or a ban by local authorities on polio immunization," and violence in the Middle East. In a March 2014 report, the organization warned that the virus, which existed in only three countries at the dawn of 2012, is now returning to places from which it had been eradicated, and "risk of further international spread remains high, particularly in central Africa (especially from Cameroon), the Middle East, and the Horn of Africa."

The collective forces of global health are watching their efforts backtrack, thanks to warfare and to the growing belief within Islamist circles that the polio-eradication effort is a secret CIA plot, designed to harm or contaminate Muslim children. Amid assassinations and bombings of vaccination sites, chiefly in Pakistan and Nigeria, the death toll for healthcare workers now exceeds the number of children dying of polio, and could soon surpass the tally of new virus-paralyzed youngsters worldwide.

What was once a triumphant example of humanity and solidarity has transformed into something deeply dangerous.

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