KANO, Nigeria — Gunmen suspected of belonging to a radical Islamist sect shot and killed at least nine women who were taking part in a polio vaccination drive in northern Nigeria on Friday, highlighting the religious tensions surrounding the inoculation of children in one of the few nations where the disease still remains endemic.
The attack shocked residents of Kano, the largest city in Nigeria’s predominantly Muslim north, where women often go from house to house to carry out the vaccination drives as Muslim families feel more comfortable allowing them inside their homes than men. It also signaled a new wave of anger targeting immunization drives in Nigeria, where clerics once claimed the vaccines were part of a Western plot to sterilize young girls.
The first attack Friday morning happened in Kano’s Hotoro Hayi neighborhood and saw gunmen arrive by three-wheel taxis and open fire. At least eight female vaccinators died in that attack, witnesses said.
The second attack, in the Unguwa Uku neighborhood, saw another four people killed, witnesses said. The witnesses spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of angering the radical sect known as Boko Haram.
However, confusion surrounded the death toll, as Kano state police spokesman Musa Magaji Majia said the attacks killed only nine people — all of them women taking part in the drive and giving the oral vaccine drops to children. A local hospital later said it received only two corpses from the Unguwa Uku attack, with four others wounded.
Definitive death tolls for such attacks in Nigeria are difficult to obtain. Police and military forces in Nigeria routinely downplay such casualties, and families quickly bury the dead before the next sunset per local Muslim tradition.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland condemned the killing and injuring of health workers in Nigeria.
‘‘They were engaged in life-saving work, trying to vaccinate children,’’ she told reporters. ‘‘Any violence that prevents children from receiving basic life-saving vaccines is absolutely unacceptable wherever it happens.’’
While police said they had no immediate suspects for the attacks, witnesses said they believed that Boko Haram had been behind the shootings. Boko Haram, whose name means ‘‘Western education is sacrilege’’ in the Hausa language of the north, has been behind a series of violent attacks across northern Nigeria as part of its fight against the country’s weak central government.
There have been other attacks targeting polio vaccinators in Kano. In October, police said two officers involved in guarding a polio immunization drive there were shot and killed.
State government officials who oversee the vaccination program did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the attack Friday or whether they’d suspend the drive after the killings.