Pakistan: Polio Vaccine Campaign

Workers Are a Target for Extremist Violence

April 18, 2014

By Rubina Mumtaz, BDS, MPH, Country Director, Pakistan

Update: Just today the Pakistani army has agreed to provide security to those providing polio vaccinations following a series of attacks against individuals involved in the campaign. Full Story.

Polio Campaign
Pakistan is one of three countries (Nigeria and Afghanistan) in the world where Polio has yet to be eradicated. According to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, Pakistan stepped up its eradication efforts and numbers fell from 173 cases in 2011 to 58 in 2012. Unfortunately, with the advent of 2013, Pakistan became the most hazardous country in the world in terms of Polio where all persons involved in Polio drops distribution from grass root field workers, the organizational employees dealing with EPI as well as the security workers accompanying the polio workers have been killed by terrorists across the country. Beginning in December 2012 where 8 Polio drop workers and 4 aid workers were slain in Karachi and KPK respectively, these horrendous senseless attacks have not ceased or eased even slightly.

The killings are believed to have been the work of radical, extremist Islamic groups who call vaccination programs a Western conspiracy to sterilize Muslim populations. They cite the U.S. operation that led to the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan as the foundation of their suspicion. It was a Pakistani doctor conducting a fake vaccination program in 2011 to collect DNA samples from residents of Osama bin Laden’s compound to verify the Al Qaeda leader’s presence there. As a consequence, the seeds of distrust of health campaigns with foreign links germinated.

Our Agra Health Center located bang in the center of this storm, 20 km away from the organization whose aid workers were killed on New Year’s Day 2013 did not deter from its Polio drop drive. Security measures were put into place to protect the staff but our Polio drive that began in January 2013 at our health center continued unabated. A Polio Awareness session was held before the start of the vaccination with parents of children. The attendants and participants were mostly women, men and children, who were informed about the importance of Polio eradication. It was also stressed that all children less than five years of age should be brought to the clinic for Polio drops.

Over a period of 9 months from January 2013 to September 2013,, in conjunction with the KPK Health Department and the Rotary Club Renaissance of Islamabad, a total of 1,704 children under the age of 5 years from not only UC Agra but also from other neighboring Union Councils were administered Polio drops.

Despite the fear and depression that was palpable at every turn, the silver lining was the brave commitment of our staff to continue risking their lives refusing to bow down to extremists’ demands. Based on their beliefs, they argue that the time of birth and death is determined by Allah, hence no mortal can change that; if their death is meant to take place in the hands of a terrorist attack, so be it. Meanwhile they are not going to allow a handful of twisted men change the way they live the life meant in their ‘kismet’ roughly translated as fate. This fatalistic view to life is perhaps the strongest weapon against the terror of extremist militants. It can easily be said that this view characterizes the resilience of the Pakistani people, a fact that has undermined all the efforts of the Taliban so far.

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