Polio workers shot dead in Pakistan, country faces health crisis

Country’s northwest town Peshawar is world’s ‘largest reservoir’ of polio virus, says WHO

By Kundan Pandey
Published: Wednesday 22 January 2014

While India is celebrating its feat of freeing itself of the scourge of polio, neighbour Pakistan’s polio-eradication campaign is going through its worst-ever crisis.

In brazen attacks carried out to oppose the campaign, militants have killed at least ten people across the country—including a child, police personnel and a health worker. The strikes have left an equal number of people injured.

According to media reports, the latest incident happened on Wednesday when militants attacked a polio-security team in Sardheri Bazaar in Charsadda district, about 30 kilometres from Peshawar. The attackers bombed a police vehicle, killing six police personnel and one child, say various media reports. Nine others were injured in the incident.

In another incident, three health workers from a vaccination team were shot dead in Karachi when militants, riding motor-bikes, fired indiscriminately. The shooting led to suspension of vaccination drive in Sindh province by health workers’ association of the country.

The only country to witness rise in cases

It was only a few days ago that the World Health Organization (WHO) had termed Peshawar, a northwestern city of the country, as the “largest reservoir” of polio virus. The international health agency also claimed that about 90 per cent of polio cases in the country were genetically linked to strains in Peshawar. Pakistan is the only country in the world that experienced a rise in number of cases of the disease in 2013. The country registered 91 confirmed cases of polio last year and 58 cases in 2012.

Out of 91 confirmed cases in 2013, 83 were genetically linked to strains in Peshawar. Not only this, but 12 out of 13 cases reported in neighbouring Afghanistan also had links to Peshawar. The polio virus found in Syria, couple of months ago, was also linked to the same Pakistani city.
Along with Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria have also been termed as polio endemics.

Misconception and opposition

Polio is a disease caused by a virus and affects the limbs of children. Since the beginning of vaccination campaign in Pakistan, a section of society has been opposing it. Extremist groups within the country have been calling it an espionage effort by foreign countries. Reports of rumors that polio-eradication efforts are a ploy by the West to sterilize Pakistani population and give way to infertility have also surfaced.

The Osama link

It has been reported that the inclusion of health workers in a vaccination drive in Abbottabad helped US government’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)  locate and subsequently kill the former al-Qaida leader in 2011. 

Later, a news was published in British newspaper, naming Pakistani senior doctor Shakil Afridi as the organizer of the drive. It was reported that he had been hired by a US authority to make the programme look more authentic by starting it in a remote area of Pakistan, Abbottabad. The world’s most-wanted terrorist, Laden, was killed in an over-night attack by the US military; the doctor was reportedly arrested by the Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) for co-operating with American intelligence agents.

The incident put all health workers across the country, engaged in immunisation drives, under suspicion and triggered the notion that such healthcare programmes can fuel further strikes against militants.

WHO, UNICEF and government have tried to convince local population through clerics about the importance of vaccination in the recent past but things haven’t changed. The violent attacks on health workers still continue, with this week’s strike being the latest among at least 30 such strikes since 2011.

Polio free India

India, recently, has completed three years without a single case of polio being reported across the country. It has now been termed a polio free country.

The last case was reported on January 13, 2011 when Rukhsar from Howrah district was infected with type-1 poliovirus. Since then, the virus has not been detected even in sewage samples across the country.

India, however, has decided to continue with the vaccination programme till the whole world gets free from the disease. It has also made the vaccination compulsory for those travelling to India from a country affected with the disease.

The final push for polio eradication: Addressing the challenge of violence in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria

Polio’s moving target

Resistance of polio to its eradication in Pakistan

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