Crippling drive: Continuous attacks on polio vaccinators have put the anti-polio drive in peril

By Javed Aziz Khan

The world is concerned about polio (or Poliomyelitis) crippling the coming generations while the Pakistanis are worried about the lives of those fighting against the infectious disease since they have become the prime target of militants all over the country. In fact, polio has not killed anyone but the anti-polio drive has killed many in Pakistan during the last few months.

Apart from grave concerns over attacks on anti-polio volunteers, the world bodies had expressed serious reservations over dissolving the Polio Monitoring Cell at the Prime Minister Secretariat in Islamabad. Taking notice of the concern shown by the world bodies and reports that it may endanger the provision of 130 million US dollars fund to the country for polio eradication, caretaker Prime Minister Mir Hazar Khan Khoso had to direct restoration of the cell.

The caretaker prime minister’s step, however, did not guarantee the security of thousands of young girls and boys administering anti-polio drops to the children below the age of five. The young and educated volunteers, mostly girls, are paid only Rs500 per day during the three-day campaign. A large number of parents have stopped their daughters from taking part in the campaign and putting their lives at risk for the meager amount. Several women have refused to perform duty especially in tribal areas where only male vaccinators are now carrying out the campaign.

“The government should make efforts to convince the elders, the elected representatives and the religious scholars to go to the people and create awareness among them regarding polio, measles and other diseases that are crippling and killing our new generations,” Dr Gohar Amin, provincial general secretary of the Pakistan Pediatric Association, told TNS. According to the pediatrician, there is no other option but to vaccinate children under the age of five against polio and other infectious diseases.

Poliomyelitis, polio or infantile paralysis, is an acute viral, infectious disease spread from person to person, primarily via the fecal-oral route. Although approximately 90 per cent of polio infections cause no symptoms at all, affected individuals can exhibit a range of symptoms if the virus enters the blood stream. In about one per cent of the cases, the virus enters the central nervous system, preferentially infecting and destroying motor neurons, leading to muscle weakness and acute flaccid paralysis.

“This is the responsibility of the government and its agencies to arrange for the security of those carrying out the campaigns to ensure all the children are vaccinated even in the restive tribal areas close to the border with Afghanistan,” said Dr Gohar Amin.

The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government authorities had to suspend the three-day anti-polio drive in Peshawar on the very first day when a two-member team of the volunteers was attacked by armed men in Kaga Wala village, in the outskirts of the provincial capital, on May 28, 2013. The 18-year-old Sharafata was killed on the spot while 20-year-old Sumbul was pronounced dead in the Lady Reading Hospital in Peshawar. Police claimed the arrest of 14 persons in a search operation during which a sub-inspector suffered a heart attack and passed away as well.

The two young ladies, according to police and other volunteers in the area, had refused to take police escort to remain in low-profile. The strategy, however, did not work. The next day, another female volunteer sustained minor injuries when attacked in Hangu.

The World Health Organization had to call back its officials from the field after the attack, resulting into the suspension of the vaccination drive by the local district administration and health officials.

“The drive is now to be resumed on June 10 with intensified security for the volunteers,” said Commissioner Peshawar division, Sahibzada Mohammad Anis, after heading a high-level meeting of the security personnel and health officials. A number of females, however, are reluctant to be part of the drive that has claimed several lives all over the country during the last few months.

“The drive will be simultaneously carried out in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Fata between June 10 and 12. This is up to the district police officers to arrange for the security in districts and the station house officers in their respective area during the three days,” Shadab Younus, the spokesperson for the UNICEF, told TNS. The authorities have to decide whether to run the campaign in phases or at the same time.

According to the UNICEF official, 3010,290 children below the age of five would be vaccinated in 18 out of the 25 districts of the KP by 8,939 teams of volunteers. Separately, over 693,000 children will be targeted in Fata during the drive. “No anti-polio campaign is being carried out in North Waziristan while in South Waziristan, vaccination is carried out only in the Wazir-dominated areas. Also, no vaccination will be carried out in the Frontier Region Peshawar,” said Shadab Younus.

The anti-polio attacks started from Karachi where five females and a male volunteer were killed on December 17 last year. The same day a young female volunteer Farzana was killed in a similar attack in the outskirts of Peshawar when she was administering drops to children along with her sister.

The then provincial government’s spokesman, Mian Iftikhar Hussain, and the local police officials tried to hush up the issue by terming the attack an act of enmity and decided to continue the campaign all over the province. The very next day, the attacks on anti-polio workers began from Shero Jhangi area on Charsadda Road, Peshawar, when armed motorcyclists opened fire on a team of anti-polio vaccinators. A male volunteer, Hilal, sustained critical bullet injuries in the attack and was rushed to the Lady Reading Hospital (LRH) in Peshawar.

Almost at the same time, a team of anti-polio vaccinators was attacked in Behram Killay in Nowshera, while another team was assaulted in Garhi Zardad in Charsadda. Few hours later, polio supervisor Zakia Begum and driver Ayaz were shot dead when they were on way to Tarkha village in the limits of Battagram Police Station in Shabqadar area in Charsadda. After a series of attacks, the vaccination was stopped all over the country.

The campaign, however, had to be restarted and that was done in January after providing police escort to all the male and female volunteers taking part in the vaccination campaign. The attackers did not stop and even started targeting the policemen accompanying the polio teams. A police constable was killed in Mardan while another was killed in Swabi during the past months while protecting the volunteers.

The writer can be contacted at javedaziz1@gmail.com and followed on Twitter at @JavedAzizKhan

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