By Dr. Ciro de Quadros, Executive Vice President of the Sabin Vaccine Institute

On Friday, February 8th, a vaccine clinic in northern Nigeria was attacked by armed gunmen. Nine health workers were reportedly killed in this incident, along with a number of injuries. This recent attack adds to the rising number of acts of violence towards health workers in the last bastions of endemic polio. In recent months, there have been several coordinated attacks in Pakistan that have left more than 16 health workers dead.

As expressed in a WHO/UNICEF joint statement, a death of a person alone is a misfortune, but the tragedy of these attacks is a two-fold loss. Health workers don’t just play a significant part in achieving many global health goals; they are on the ground making these goals possible. Endangering the safety of these workers also jeopardizes efforts to increase public trust in vaccines and vaccination programs.

Although the global eradication of polio is imminently achievable, with 99 percent of the disease eliminated, three countries – Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan – still have endemic polio transmission. In these countries, and in others with imported or reestablished cases, hundreds of people each year are infected with the virus, which can cause irreversible paralysis and disfigurement.

Last May, the World Health Assembly (WHA) adopted a landmark Resolution declaring the completion of polio eradication a programmatic emergency for global public health. The rise in attacks impedes our progress towards our target of complete eradication – zero new cases. So as we continue our effort to cease the spread of polio and other vaccine-preventable diseases, it is imperative that we emphasize security for health workers.

On behalf of the Sabin Vaccine Institute, I’d like to express our most sincere condolences to the families and others affected by these attacks.

Photo by Olivier Asselin. A child receives the oral polio vaccine at the Kenema government hospital, in the town of Kenema, Sierra Leone on Friday July 13, 2012.