ISLAMABAD, Jan 28: While Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani is set to launch the first polio campaign of 2012 in the backdrop of rising cases of the crippling disease; US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta might have already made a dent in the drive.

In an interview to the media on Friday, Mr Panetta praised Dr Shakil Afridi, who is under the custody of Pakistani security agencies for launching a fake polio vaccination campaign in Abbottabad and tipping the US government about the presence of Osama Bin Laden there.

The statement came at a time when Pakistan was trying to convince the international donor agencies that it was doing its level best to rid itself of the crippling virus.

Pakistan is currently ranked last in the fight against the virus and recorded a total of 198 polio cases during the year 2011. The fifth polio case of 2012 was recorded on Thursday whereas in the corresponding period last year there was only one reported case.

Some 35 million children under the age of five will be targeted nationwide during the campaign starting on Monday.

Though the federal government’s polio emergency campaign 2011 was spearheaded by Mr Gilani, the desired results could not be achieved as cases continued to emerge throughout the year putting a question mark on the special cell set up by the prime minister.

According to media reports, Mr Panetta paid tributes to the efforts of Dr Afridi and expressed concerns over his arrest. “I’m very concerned about what the Pakistanis did with this individual … who, in fact, helped provide intelligence that was very helpful with regards to this (Abbottabad) operation,” Panetta said, according to excerpts of his interview.

It is pertinent to mention that after the operation that killed Osama in May last year, Unicef’s polio eradication unit chief Dennis J. King had expressed concerns over the poor state of credibility of Pakistan’s largest public sector health initiative.

“A number of families across Pakistan refused vaccinations from July when news of the reportedly fake campaign broke.

Following the early reports, some families in provinces refused to have their children vaccinated citing the fake campaign as the cause,” Mr King had remarked during a talk with foreign mediapersons.

When the Unicef office in Pakistan was approached through an email some two weeks ago for comments on the fake polio campaign of the CIA through Dr Afridi, they replied: “To create demand and acceptance for the repeated administration of polio drops, Unicef continuously engages its social mobilisation mechanisms as outlined in the first point, and works closely with communities and local opinion leaders, including religious, social and political leaders and the media.”

The Unicef office added that they were familiar with the comments of Dennis King: “which also noted that Abbottabad campaign was for hepatitis B, not polio.”

A senior federal government official requesting anonymity said: “Parents were shocked to know that their innocent children were being used in the name of polio eradication to hunt down Osama and now a message of support for Dr Afridi from the US defence secretary is tantamount to putting Pakistan’s polio campaign in jeopardy.”

When contacted, the newly-appointed national polio campaign manager, Dr Zahid Larik, told Dawn: “The campaign brings a new hope for Pakistan’s polio campaign since it has been planned with the help of all donors.”

Asked whether the statement of the US defence secretary would have a negative impact on the polio campaign, he said: “I don’t think Afridi’s case will dent our campaign.” He said army had also extended full support to the polio campaign in the troubled areas of the country.” Even the locals in different areas of the country would be assisting us in the new polio campaign, he added.

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