AMIDST cautious optimism that Pakistan may be finally beginning to achieve success in bringing the number of polio cases down, there has been a spate of disheartening news on the polio vaccination front. Specifically, it pertains to the safety of those in charge of polio vaccinators’ security. On Monday, a young policeman on polio duty was martyred in Kulachi, district Dera Ismail Khan, KP. The foot constable, Dilawar Khan, was attacked by unknown men, who then managed to flee the scene. Five suspects were later arrested and are under investigation. Just a day earlier, another cop had lost his life while returning home after doing security duty with vaccinators in Peshawar. In another attack on Sunday, a roadside IED in South Waziristan exploded when a police van escorting a polio vaccination team was passing by. One officer travelling in the van was injured. Fortunately, the vaccinators in both incidents remained unhurt. The attacks took place on the third day of a five-day polio vaccination drive in 18 districts of the province announced by the KP government to inoculate around 3.7m children. In early June, two policemen assigned to protect vaccinators had been gunned down in Mardan district, KP, by unknown assailants.

The uptick in these murderous attacks is a tragic turn of events that once again threatens Pakistan’s efforts to eliminate the crippling disease from within its borders. This particular aspect of extremist violence first began with the killings of five polio vaccinators, four in Karachi and one in Peshawar, in December 2012. It has dogged the anti-polio campaign ever since, with more than 100 vaccinators and security personnel associated with the campaign slain over the following years at the hands of extremist elements. Pakistan and Afghanistan remain the last two countries in the world where polio remains endemic. In 2018, we came tantalisingly close to eradicating the disease, but the numbers surged in 2019 as a result of various lapses in policy and infrastructure, according to the International Monitoring Board. Last year, 84 cases of wild poliovirus and 135 cases of cVDPV2 were reported. However, by end June 2021, only one case of wild poliovirus and eight of cVDPV2 had surfaced. Now that the government has got its act together, extremist elements are putting these hard-won gains in peril. They must be hunted down and punished to send a message to others who would deprive our children of their future.

Published in Dawn, August 4th, 2021

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