THE threat of deadly violence never seems to diminish for health workers and police officials involved in door-to-door polio vaccination campaigns in the country. On Tuesday, two policemen and a health worker were killed when unidentified gunmen opened fire on them in North Waziristan’s Datakhel tehsil. The attack took place in the Tang Kali locality near the Pak-Afghan border. This is the second such attack since January this year when a policeman escorting a vaccination team was shot dead in Kohat. The attack in North Waziristan has come on the heels of an aggressive resurgence of the wild poliovirus in the area. Since only April this year, at least 11 cases of the wild poliovirus have been reported from a cluster of high-risk union councils. These cases had surfaced after a hiatus of 15 months that had given hope that Pakistan might be on the brink of eliminating the crippling disease from its territory. However, as the attack demonstrates, Pakistan still has a long way to go before achieving polio-free status. Moreover, refusals still remain high in North Waziristan. According to reports, silent refusals by parents and fake markings on children’s fingers were one of the key reasons for the abnormally high number of cases.
Though the investigation is still ongoing, the latest attack on the polio team reflects the high mistrust of official authorities in this area. The issue of refusals is a long-standing one, and WHO and Unicef on many occasions have asked the Pakistani authorities to address the problem of missing and invisible children who remain outside the umbrella of immunisation campaigns. On the other hand, as the wild poliovirus remains endemic only in the Pak-Afghan region, cross-border coordination for its elimination is the need of the hour. Recent events have made it clear that aggressive campaigning for the administration of the polio vaccine is no longer enough, and that a wide-ranging, sensitive and strategic effort is required to address the public’s suspicions regarding the government’s anti-polio efforts.
Published in Dawn, June 30th, 2022