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Attacks on vaccinators

July 23, 2012

IT is frustrating enough that Pakistan remains one of only three countries — the others being Afghanistan and Nigeria — that have failed to eradicate polio. Where it once seemed that the dreaded virus could be brought under control, several factors have led to a resurgence. One is the crisis of the millions of people displaced internally by conflict or natural disasters, which resulted in the virus being reintroduced in what were earlier polio-free areas. Another has been the propaganda against polio drops spread in the north-west by conservative and extremist elements. Pakistan’s polio eradication campaign has always had to operate in a hostile environment. Even so, the turn the situation has taken in recent weeks is unprecedented. What was earlier resistance seems to be in danger of turning into a sustained campaign involving life-threatening violence. It was bad enough that the Taliban announced a ban on immunisations in Waziristan. But it’s nearly calamitous that a grand jirga of tribal elders, tasked by the government to persuade the extremists to allow vaccinations, said that there would be no polio immunisation until the drone attacks ceased.

Friday’s killing in Karachi’s Sohrab Goth of a doctor associated with the World Health Organisation’s anti-polio campaign adds to that worrying trend. Just a few days ago, on July 17, another WHO doctor associated with immunisations was wounded in a gun attack in the same area. It can be speculated that Fata’s politics are having a spill-over effect in Karachi, given that these attacks took place in an area that has received many of the people displaced from the tribal areas. But there have been other instances as well: WHO polio workers were beaten and fired upon in Islamabad and Jacobabad respectively. Unless by a miracle better sense prevails in obscurantist quarters, the situation looks set to get worse, leaving child health hostage to a virulent cross-section of politics and militancy.