Why not the milkman or the mochi? Why use the vaccine campaign to find Bin Laden, asks Shahnaz Wazir Ali – Zofeen EbrahimJust when the government thought it had settled the anxieties and distrust about the polio vaccine that had erupted after the Dr Shakil Afridi episode, the recent killing of polio workers has come as a major setback for polio eradication efforts.
Afridi, former surgeon general in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas’ Khyber Agency has been convicted of treason by the court and sentenced to 33 years in prison for carrying out a CIA-led fake door-to-door hepatitis B vaccination drive to confirm the presence of Osama bin Laden in his Abbottabad home.
“In the tribal areas especially, it cast doubts on the intentions and integrity of our health workers,” states Shahnaz Wazir Ali, adviser on polio to Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf.
She says the vaccinators were looked upon with suspicion as spies roaming around to gather information and put in chips for drone attacks, and termed CIA’s using humanitarian activity for their intelligence gathering as “alarming and blatantly unfair”, as it jeopardised the health of the Pakistani children.
“I certainly think that it had a negative impact in contributing — along with other factors — to the boycott of the polio campaign in some areas, increased security threats, and specifically risking the lives of health workers,” declares Heidi J. Larson, who studies polio situation globally, but has particularly focused on Pakistan since 2011.
What was even more unfortunate is that even the United Nations chose not to protest risking fuelling tensions. Instead, said Larson, a former head of Unicef’s Global Immunisation Communication, the UN agencies “focused on anticipating and working to mitigate the potential negative impacts”.
“They could have used the milkman or the mochi (cobbler) to pursue their goals for all we care!” said a rankled Wazir Ali who is not sure if CIA’s strategy was worth the damage it caused to polio eradication endeavours.
However, through relentless campaigning, the apprehensions of the people regarding the vaccines are being addressed somewhat by involving political and religious leaders.