PESHAWAR: Police guarding health workers during house-to-house vaccination campaigns continue to get killed by militants, who are opposed to polio immunisation in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

So far, 109 people have been killed in polio-related incidents since 2012, according to a report, which puts the number of injuries suffered by policemen and polio workers at 162 during this period.

It said that a total of 13 people were kidnapped during vaccination drives. The total number of killed and injured remained 284, including 166 policemen, 87 health workers and 31 civilians. They included 255 men and 29 women.

The Monday’s incident in Bajaur tribal district saw six deaths in one go in polio-related improvised explosive device blast as well as 29 injuries, the highest ever in a single act of terrorism against the people involved in vaccination. The incident, the first of its kind in the current year, marks the list of endless series of killing of police and vaccinators.

Vaccinators continue to fall to bullets of unidentified assailants since long but not as aggressively as they had been since 2012. However, the year 2014 witnessed 17 deaths, highest in any year since 2012 during which seven people were murdered in Charsadda district whereas in 2013 and 2016, militants killed 13 people in both years.

A report says 109 people have been killed in such attacks since 2012

Peshawar, the provincial capital, accounted for six deaths. In 2019, 10 people became victims of the attacks by terrorists, who are allegedly opposing polio vaccination under the misconception that drops are designed by western countries to render the recipients infertile and cut down the population of Muslims.

Other argument advanced for vaccine hesitancy is that immunisation is not allowed in Islam before occurrence of the disease. In 2022, 12 people were killed, including three each in Mardan and Peshawar, due to the same reasons. However, the previous year remained relatively peaceful as only one death was recorded in a polio-related incident.

According to the report, Peshawar has registered 23 deaths since 2012, Charsadda 12, Swabi and Dera Ismail Khan 10 each, Bannu nine, Bajaur seven, Mardan six, Tank five, Mansehra and North Waziristan four each, Bannu and Buner three each, Lower Dir, Swat and Khyber two each and one person each was killed during anti-polio campaigns in South Waziristan, Nowshera, Kurram and Lakki Marwat.

In each house-to-house vaccination drive, health workers target more than 7.4 million children with the help of 35,000 teams but about 500,000 stay unvaccinated, posing threats to the government’s plan to make the province polio-free. In each effort, 50,000 security personnel are deployed to ensure safety of health workers and reach every child.

Experts say that the province has been struggling to access every child as only vaccination can make the province free of polio, a crippling childhood ailment, but security situation is standing in the way of eradicating the virus. On many occasions, the province has gone very close to eradicating the virus but terrorists have succeeded to hinder the eradication efforts.

They say that poliomyelitis is the only childhood diseases that can be permanently eradicated through vaccination. The disease has been wiped out from the whole world, except Pakistan and neighbouring Afghanistan, using the same vaccine. Pakistanis are facing travel bans due to the circulation of poliovirus back home and these difficulties would continue to haunt people as far as the virus exists.

Experts opine that huge money and human resources, being utilised for polio campaigns, could be diverted to tackling other childhood problems once polio is eradicated. Trained polio workers have played significant role in Covid-19 vaccination in the province and their services can be vital for dealing with other public health issues being faced by people.

Published in Dawn, January 9th, 2024

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