Pakistan halts polio drive in north-west areas

Repeated attacks by militants on health volunteers hampers crucial pre-monsoon immunisation work

Pakistan has suspended its pre-monsoon polio vaccination drive in the  north-western region of the country after a brutal attack on two female volunteers on Tuesday. One of them died and the other is critical.

Health volunteer, Sharafat was killed while her teammate Sunbal Gul is battling for her life. The attack took place in Badhabher on the outskirts of Peshawar.

The pre-monsoon polio drive is said to be crucial for controlling polio virus in the region. Appalled by the frequent attacks, the authorities are trying to devise new security measures before a fresh drive is initiated.

Mohammad Hanif Khilji, provincial coordinator for polio plus in Quetta, told Down To Earth that Pakistan is facing extreme violence at the hands of Taliban militants. Badhabher is located on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and is considered to be extremely dangerous region for the vaccination drive.

Monsoons bring back virus

He pointed out that rains and floods had washed away polio eradication targets two years ago. In the Indus basin region of Pakistan, floods cause polio virus to return time and again.

“We are shocked by the attack. This is for the second time that female workers have been killed. The pre-monsoon immunization is crucial to prevent spread of polio virus after monsoon,” he said.

UN and Rotary, as a precautionary measure after the killing of six immunization workers at the outskirts of Karachi on December 18 last year, provided elaborate security to polio volunteers. Each vaccination team was provided a team of armed security personnel.

Pakistan polio workers are administering polio drops amidst severe opposition from Islamic clerics and cross-border terrorist groups affiliated to Taliban. Khilji warned that such attacks will demoralise the vaccination teams.

“We are working under extreme pressure and a lot of support is needed to eradicate polio from Pakistan. Our neighbouring county, Afghanistan, is facing similar threat to vaccination workers,” he said.

Afghanistan, Nigeria in same boat

Polio vaccination drive in Islamic nations like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria is facing stiff opposition from radical groups. In Afghanistan, one female vaccination worker was killed in December last year. Around nine polio workers were killed in Nigeria on February 8 this year by Boko Haram, a radical group.

Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria suffer from very low health and hygiene and pose a challenge for UN-supported polio immunisation drives. A spate of violent incidents targeting volunteers have added to the burgeoning problem.

According to a WHO study, any child infected with a polio virus has the potential to spread the disease among 200,000 humans in a decade. Pakistan reported 56 polio cases and Nigeria accounted for 43 polio cases last year; Afghanistan reported 76 cases.

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