POLIO eradication efforts in the country appear to have suddenly taken a giant leap backwards. A day after vaccination campaigns kicked off in Sindh and six high-risk districts of KP, two policemen guarding polio workers were attacked and killed by unknown assailants in Tank district on Tuesday. Though the attackers appear to have spared the polio workers, their message was, once again, loud and clear. Even though there had been zero polio cases for about 15 months before April, such attacks had continued to hang like the sword of Damocles over those involved in polio eradication efforts. Unknown assailants shot dead a health worker in Peshawar in June, while in December last year, two policemen were killed in Tank reportedly by the TTP. It was against this backdrop that a new wave of cases emerged this year, at a time when the authorities believed that the fruit of their long and life-threatening eradication efforts was within reach — and yet there was pressure from global health bodies to step up vigilance. As it turned out, greater effort was needed, as demonstrated by the aggressive resurgence of polio cases since April — 14 in all from a cluster of high-risk areas in KP. This was a sign that vaccine resistance and mistrust of polio eradication efforts were far more deeply entrenched than previously acknowledged. Families of children recently affected by polio had reportedly refused the vaccination for their offspring.
Unfortunately, no eradication goal can be achieved unless the politicians are on board. Last week, the Federal Minister of Religious Affairs Maulana Abdul Shakoor said that the people in the merged districts would boycott the vaccination campaign if peace was not restored in the area. Such an irresponsible statement from the holder of an office that should ideally be leading the way in allaying fears of reluctant families, swayed by the irrationality of militants opposing the vaccine as a ‘foreign ploy’, should be strongly condemned. In fact, it is nothing short of playing into the militants’ hands, and the prime minister should seriously consider replacing the maulana with someone who understands the urgency of the situation and the need to counter false narratives. All political and religious stakeholders must act at once to express their support for the national polio programme and pledge to keep the cause of polio eradication above petty politics. The price of not doing so would be a terrible one for the country’s children.
Published in Dawn, August 18th, 2022