Four sick children in northern Pakistan mark the first polio cases of 2014, but not the disease’s first victims. Since last Tuesday, anti-government violence has claimed the lives at least three polio health workers and injured several others, stalling progress towards the disease’s eradication.
Along with Afghanistan and Nigeria, Pakistan remains one of three countries to which polio is endemic. In view of India’s remarkable success in eradicating polio, in 2012, the World Health Organization launched an aggressive strategy to eradicate polio in the three remaining countries as part of their Global Polio Eradication Initiative.
However, their efforts to boost vaccination coverage have been met by violent resistance in Pakistan, notably by Taliban and Al Qaeda-led Armed Forces. Lethal assaults have turned polio related work into a high-risk occupation and reversed polio eradication efforts.
The Human Rights Watch reported at least 22 polio workers were killed and 14 wounded in Pakistan in 2012 and 2013; in the past two weeks alone, armed motorists shot at polio vaccinators. The attacks came just one day after the launch of a national three day drive to immunize up to 7.6 million children.
Their assault tactics not only forced workers from both the WHO and local teams to halt their work, but also resulted in a nearly immediate increase in the number of polio cases. According to the United Nations, polio cases increased by 57 percent in the past year, up from 58 cases in 2012 to 91 in 2013.
The vaccination ban stems from a United States espionage rumor that turned out to be true. In 2011, the CIA sent a faux vaccination team to Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan to scout information about his whereabouts. While its Pakistani accomplice, Dr. Shakil Afridi, faces years of imprisonment, authentic vaccinators are now shunned for being U.S. spies.
On top of actual rumors that vaccinations secretly sterilizes Muslim children and growing animosity toward drone strikes that reportedly killed more than 2,400 people in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia over the past five years, administering polio vaccinations seems an almost impossible task to such an unwilling public.
Despite these setbacks, Pakistan’s government is determined to eliminate the disease and implemented incentives for vaccinators. It has created crisis response centers, increased police and army escorts and health officials treating patients in the most dangerous areas now receive $5 for their work.
– Emily Bajet