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Taliban’s ‘polio war’ puts 241,000 children at risk

Published Jul 02, 2012 08:22am


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Taliban militants gather in the Bara region of Pakistani tribal areas. Taliban have warned health workers administering polio vaccine to stop their campaigns or "face the consequences." – File photo by Dawn
Taliban militants gather in the Bara region of Pakistani tribal areas. Taliban have warned health workers administering polio vaccine to stop their campaigns or "face the consequences." – File photo by Dawn

If the Government of Pakistan fails to persuade the Taliban to take back their threat, and the United States refuses to stop its drone war in what is one of the most troubled spots in the world, lives of an estimated 241,000 children under the age of five, in two of the seven agencies in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) will be at stake.

Last month, militants in North Waziristan, led by Hafiz Gul Bahadur, announced a ban of anti-polio campaign until the US put a stop to the drone war.

“On the one hand they are killing innocent women, children and old people in drone attacks and on the other, they are spending millions on vaccination campaign,” said a leaflet distributed in the region’s main town of Miramshah.

Following the ban in North Waziristan, similar pamphlets were distributed by a militant faction in the adjoining South Waziristan a week later, warning health workers to stop their campaigns or face the consequences.

“Polio and other foreign-funded vaccination drives in Wana sub-division would not be allowed until US drone operations in the agency are stopped,” stated the pamphlet issued by Taliban commander Mullah Nazir. This is the third time the Taliban have banned polio vaccinations in areas under their control.

Since the Nato conference in Chicago this May, and when Pakistan decided not to re-open its supply route to Afghanistan, drone strikes have intensified and the brunt of attacks has been felt in both the North and South Waziristan agencies.

If the Taliban mean business there could be “an increase in polio cases, and even disability and death among the children of these areas” according to Dr Janbaz Afridi, deputy director of the Expanded Programme for Immunization (EPI) for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

“For us, even one child left out is one too many,” says Mazhar Nisar, the Health Education Advisor at the Prime Minister’s Polio Monitoring Cell, referring to the children missed from being administered the oral polio vaccine (OPV) caused by the ban.

These announcements by Taliban are indeed a blow to eradication of polio in Pakistan. Despite two decades of mass vaccination drives, Pakistan has failed to control the crippling paediatric disease. Today, being among the last three countries (others being Afghanistan and Nigeria) where polio is endemic, it is under excessive international pressure to eradicate it as the presence of the virus means a major set-back to global plans.

The last decade saw Pakistan taking massive strides to reduce the polio incidence. In 2005, the number of cases went down to just 28, but since then there have been signs of the OPV drive losing momentum.

Since 1988, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative – spearheaded by WHO, Rotary International, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and Unicef – has achieved a 99 per cent reduction in polio incidence worldwide.

This was possible through the mass administration of OPV simultaneously to all children below the age of five, to induce ‘herd immunity’ in entire regions and replace the wild polio virus with a cultured, attenuated strain.

Since early this year, there have been 22 confirmed polio cases, compared to 52 in the same period last year. Of these, 11 have been reported from Fata, with nine alone from Khyber agency.

Political analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi views the Taliban policy of linking the entry of health workers to stopping drone attacks as show of “confidence and control of the area”.

“That they can implement anything if they become determined and the Pakistani authorities are left with no option but to negotiate with them shows the Taliban disregard for the future of children and this fits in well with their policy of destroying schools. The desire to establish their control and create their domain of authority by whatever means is the objective. They represent an authority alternate to Pakistani authority,” Askari told

Afridi of the EPI agrees. He says the fear of “torture and kidnapping” from the militant groups is quite palpable and spread across the adjoining agencies as well as parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

“There is every effort to assuage these fears and the field teams will be provided complete security by the police, with support from the provincial administration.” So far, he said, there have been no cases of health workers pulling out of the immunisation work due to the threats issued by the local militants.

Meanwhile, Nisar, is quite hopeful that the situation will be resolved. “The federal government is aware of the situation and the government of KPK, the political agents, members of the peace committee and tribal elders are intervening to find a solution,” he told, adding: “After all, they are putting their kids at risk too.”

“I think it’s a step in the right direction,” says Afridi.

Mariam Bibi, who heads Khwendo Kor – a KP-based non-government organisation working for women of the area, too concedes persuasion the only way out. “Nobody wants to endanger the lives of their children, but this message needs to be emphasised.”

However, she warns it should not be limited to getting the militants to agree on administration of the polio vaccine.

“Today it is polio, tomorrow the militants will come up with another issue to arm-twist the government; a more holistic approach is needed where the confidence of the local people has to be won.

“You give them water and I swear half your problem will be resolved,” Bibi said.

She said there were “layers upon layers” of problems that needed to be addressed. “Give them a complete healthcare package, not just polio drops; when you promise education, ensure and negotiate that it is not just for boys but be firm that girls will have to be educated as well.” According to Bibi, the government needed to strategise and build its capacity.

“And they need more women in the field.”

The latest announcement by the militants has once again revived the case of Dr Shakil Afridi, a local doctor convicted by a tribal court to 33 years in prison for assisting American spy agence CIA in finding the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden through a fake hepatitis campaign.

Bibi said after Dr Afridi was found to be spying, there is a growing suspicion among the locals that there could be several others among the health workers spying for the US This suspicion is compounded by the statement made by Bahadur who alluded to the “strong possibility of spying” on mujahideen for the US during the polio vaccination campaign. “In the garb of these vaccination campaigns, the US and its allies are running their spying networks in Fata...” the leaflets distributed in South Waziristan says.

With anti-American sentiment at an all time low, this has further hampered the vaccination driver.

However, Mazhar is quite convinced the Pakhtun people “would never use children” as a ploy. Moreover, the health workers were all local people and “well aware of the situation on the ground” in these security compromised areas.

“Taliban use such tactics like burning girls schools to gain world’s attention,” agreed Ibrash Pasha, working for Khwendo Kor in Dir.

Therefore, there are never any fixed dates set for holding vaccination drives and “opportunistic campaigns” take place whenever the situation becomes favourable. For now, the only other step taken by the polio cell is to immunise anyone entering or leaving these tribal agencies and the province. “Vaccinators are present at all entry and exit points,” said Mazhar.

The author is a freelance journalist.


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Comments (22) Closed

sandeep Jul 02, 2012 09:32am
US public and the whole world will laugh when they hear something like this.They will truly understand what kind of people are controlling these parts.
sandeep Jul 02, 2012 09:29am
This will happen when a constitutional government loses power and people who believe in conspiracy theories and radical thinking come to power.The people who give these kind of orders must be handled properly by the people.
sandeep Jul 03, 2012 07:39am
rational thinks in an irrational way...very funny.
Rational Jul 02, 2012 08:58am
Hope this protest step would reach the US public and would help end so-called war on terror and drone strikes in the region.
saleem Jul 02, 2012 02:32pm
very irrational of you rational!
Deepak Jul 03, 2012 10:34am
It seems Taliban are trying to say 'If Americans do not stop killing our children, we will kill the children ourselves'. Now, how logical is that ?
Sanket Jul 02, 2012 07:37pm
This the price you pay for using terrorists as instruments of foreign policy.
Eddied Jul 02, 2012 11:47am
The taliban have no problem sacrificing their children to polio in order to win...they are the most despicable people on earth...anyone in Pakistan who supports the Taliban must be completely corrupt and evil...
AHA Jul 02, 2012 01:09pm
Seems we are too focused on what we will get in the 'Aakhirat' to worry about our poor children in this world.
sandeep Jul 02, 2012 11:54am
They are blinded by hate towards America that they want Americans to fail at least in the complete eradication of polio.It is like sitting in the top of a tree and cutting the same branch in which you are sitting.
Asjad Jul 04, 2012 10:17am
Dr. Afridi blundered by camouflaging his campaign, hurling iota of suspicion at other fairly conducted anti-polio or anti-Hepatitis drives. Every action, predicated on bunch of lie or deception, has its consequences. Now Taliban who are murderers indeed are going to capitalize on this past experience under the concocted pretext of being apprehensive of CIA spies among those who are flag-bearing these campaigns. Their mission is to spread anarchy, mischief and misery wherever they are; at least in Pakistani areas TTP is famous for inflicting brutalities on unprecedented scales and now they will not have to fire a bullet but population will die of deceases.
Enigma Jul 02, 2012 10:27am
If the strikes didn't stop polio drive will be stopped, but who will be loser then?
sandeep Jul 02, 2012 01:28pm
This is not about a single country.this is about complete eradication of polio
Omar Khan Jul 02, 2012 01:04pm
Are Taliban really following Islam? Does Islam teach you to be that smart, hurt your own children make them handicapped? It is actions like these which make me think more & more that Taliban followers have not even read Quran or any Hadith (with translation).
Sadiq Jul 02, 2012 05:31pm
i don't understand who Taliban can threaten local residents, clearly identified through many press pictures and yet roam around freely. If Government of Pakistan is sincere and if the politicians are honest (???), no one will back off from identfiying these elements through facial recognition software and 'eradicate them. I believe that many politicians are in bed with these barbarians ( specially Nawaz Shareef and some others that we all know of). Otherwise, how dare they threaten innocent people, specailly women and children
junaid Jul 03, 2012 03:04pm
One thing I cant understand why their are so much emphasis on POLIO only, their are lot of other deseases. forget about desease what about those children dying without food in only somalia 250,000 chidren die without food, thats not important, childrens dying daily because of war, thousands of Palestenian children jailed. WHY ONLY POLIO IS SO IMPORTANT ?
Pavas Jul 03, 2012 10:05am
Aah!! What a "Rational" thinking of Mr. Rational!! Instead of solving your problem you want the problem to spread other parts of worlds too..Does an average Pakistani thinks like this only?? No wonder why Pakistan is considered among the failed nations because it is people who make the country!!!
Silajit Jul 02, 2012 03:35pm
Think about this for a second. You and the Taliban are both aware of the anti polio shots being used as a way to find out more about a specific person's DNA to identify him. So up to this point, there is no difference. However (and I am assuming this), you will still make sure that your kids get polio shots. The difference is proof that the US is not at fault for people refusing polio shots. Lack of education is at fault. Fix that, instead of blaming the US.
Pavas Ambashta Jul 04, 2012 10:41am
I am really amazed with the replies here..Someone says that if Pakistan is unable to eradicate Polio then it should spread to the US also and here we have one more gentleman who thinks that Polio eradication itself is not at all important!! Marvellous!! Dear sir, have you ever seen a Polio sricken child?? Can't you feel his/her pain when that physically challanged child sees his friends playing, jumping, running with joy?? All that this child can do is to watch them with wet eyes!! Everything you mentioned may be true but to put a questionmark on importance of Polio eradication is insane..
Pavas Jul 05, 2012 07:18pm
Or better say "Boya Ped Babool Ka, Aam kahan se Paye!!!"
gulkhan Jul 11, 2012 01:04pm
Did any one bothered about the devastating after effect of US drone on that areas,the chemical being used against them,No body say nothing about them why
gulkhan Jul 11, 2012 01:01pm
But what about Dr Afridi like people who spy on them