After nearly three months in captivity, six polio workers of the World Health Organization (WHO) have been released by their abductors in Frontier Regional Tank (FR Tank), stated an official on Wednesday.
On the morning of February 17, the six employees departed for Peeng village, located in the northwestern region of Pakistan, to administer polio vaccination drops. Unidentified armed men abducted their convoy and held them in an undisclosed location.
According to the official, the release was largely due to a jirga, a tribal council comprised of eight local tribal elders, who succeeded in negotiating with the captors. Thus far no group has claimed responsibility for the abduction nor is it known whether a ransom was paid.
Those kidnapped included three security personnel, two doctors and their driver. A similar situation took place in February when one polio worker and three Levies personnel were kidnapped from Awaran and released one day later.
Although these hostages were released, the level of violence against polio workers remains a serious threat. It has interrupted polio vaccination operations in the past. Women have often been the target of such violence, with as many as 30 employees of Lady Health Workers, a female health organization, killed in the past two years. In late March one female polio vaccinator was kidnapped from her home and violently murdered.
Beginning in 2006 and escalating in 2011 after the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, Taliban officials residing mainly in the northern, tribal regions of Pakistan, have vilified polio vaccination teams as spies seeking to sterilize Pakistani children.
This constant struggle between militant groups and polio vaccination teams has increasingly had an effect on children, the main beneficiaries of the vaccine.
Reports of polio in Pakistan increased from six cases in 2013 to 54 in 2014, the majority of which originate from the tribal regions of the country, specifically North Waziristan, South Waziristan, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and the densely populated Peshawar Valley.
Even more significant is the increase in polio sightings outside of the three countries in which it is still endemic—Pakistan, Nigeria and Afghanistan. So far this year, cases have been reported in Equatorial Guinea, Iraq, Cameroon, Syria and Ethiopia.
If trends continue, the WHO warns that untreated polio may result in 200,000 new cases every year.
– Emily Bajet