An Urdu-language pamphlet distributed by militants in Pakistan’s tribal regions has warned health workers to stay away from polio vaccination campaigns or face dire consequences.
“Polio and other foreign-funded vaccination drives in Wana sub division would not be allowed until US drone operations in the agency are stopped,” warned the pamphlet issued by Mullah Nazir, commander of his own faction of the Taliban in South Waziristan.
The warning is not the first to come from tribal militants since a Pakistani doctor was convicted of assisting the CIA in locating former Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden by running a fake polio vaccination campaign in Abbottabad last year.
Mullah Nazir’s handout calls the “traitor Dr Shakeel Afridi’s fake campaign in Abbottabad” proof that “infidel forces are using media, education and development as a tool to gag Muslims.”
A ban similar to the one in Wana was imposed earlier in North Waziristan Agency by the Hafiz Gul Bahadar faction of the Taliban, who are alleged by the United States of having close links to Al Qaeda and the Haqqani network.
The Mullah Nazir and Hafiz Gul Bahadar groups have remained the prime target of the US drone operations in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata), as the US-led coalition forces blame the two groups of harbouring al Qaeda-linked foreign fighters besides sending them across the border into Afghanistan.
Despite global eradication, Pakistan is one of just three countries where polio remains endemic, along with Afghanistan and Nigeria.
The highly infectious disease affects mainly the under-fives and can cause paralysis in a matter of hours. In some cases, it can turn fatal.
However, especially since the Abbottabad incident, militants in Pakistan tribal areas view foreign-funded vaccination campaigns with growing suspicion, with commanders like Mullah Nazir and Hafiz Gul Bahadur linking their bans to the cessation of the much despised US drone strikes in the remote mountainous regions.
“In the garb of these vaccination campaigns, the US and its allies are running their spying networks in Fata which has brought death and destruction on them in the form of drone strikes,” says Mullah Nazir’s pamphlet.
The North Taliban Shura, or Supreme Council, had also issued a similar notification warning against polio vaccination until the US drone strikes were stopped.
The announcements by the both Taliban groups would be a serious blow to the already shaky anti-polio campaign, further deteriorating the situation in Fata where polio cases are on the rise.
During the current year so far out of 22 confirmed polio cases, 11 have been reported from Fata, with Khyber Agency on top with nine cases.
Director of the Expanded Programme of Immunisation (EPI), Dr Janbaz Afridi, told Dawn.com that there was only one polio case in North Waziristan this year as compared to 14 last year.
“In South Waziristan, too, we have one confirmed polio affected child this year, while there were four in 2011 – an encouraging signal for the success of the drive,” said the doctor.
When asked about the renewed threat by militants, he said: “We have to wait and look out for the outcome of this new situation….but if things don’t go smoothly, it will affect the gains we have made this year.”
But the doctor, despite the bleak situation, still places his best bets on hope.
“We are using diplomatic channels and the local tribal elders to persuade those who are opposing the drive. Hopefully we shall be able to resolve the crisis at the earliest.”
The latest threat issued by the Taliban leaders may, however, become a roadblock in eradicating polio from the tribal regions.