Anti-polio drive crippled by Taliban

Posted: September 24, 2012 in Published in, The Friday Times
Tags: ,

 

By Zia Ur Rehman

Aug 3-9, 2012

http://www.thefridaytimes.com/beta3/tft/article.php?issue=20120803&page=2

Pakistani TV channels showed cricket superstar Shahid Afridi asking viewers in Urdu and Pashto to choose between crutches and a cricket bat for their children. The message is part of a recent polio eradication campaign designed especially for Pakistani Pashtuns and Afghan refugees living in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the tribal areas, Karachi and elsewhere, who are reluctant to or have refused to permit vaccination of their children against the polio virus.

The three-day nationwide drive ended on July 18, but children in some tribal agencies were not vaccinated because of threats by Taliban. “The July campaign was successfully completed, except in North and South Waziristan and a few other areas where approximately 290,000 children reside,” said Dr Elias Durry, World Health Organization’s chief coordinator for polio eradication in Pakistan.

Local Taliban leaders – Hafiz Gul Bahadur of North Waziristan, Mullah Nazir of South Waziristan and Mangal Bagh of Khyber Agency – have banned polio vaccination in their areas to protest against US drone attacks.

“In the garb of these vaccination campaigns, the US and its allies are running spy networks in the tribal areas, and that has brought death and destruction in the form of drone strikes,” said a pamphlet distributed by militants loyal to Mullah Nazir in Wana.

Some Jirgas of tribal elders also supported the ban. But one elder said on condition of anonymity that they were pressured and threatened. “They are punishing ordinary tribesmen for the human and material losses they have incurred in drone strikes,” he said, adding that the Taliban would be responsible for any polio cases that result from the ban. Parents, he said, were willing to immunize their children.

There has been a severe backlash against vaccination for polio and other diseases after reports that the CIA had used a Pakistani doctor, Shakil Afridi, to set up a fake campaign as a cover for the search for Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad. The WHO said in its July 19 statement that Shakil was never part of any genuine or fake polio vaccination program in Pakistan and that baseless reports linking him to anti-polio efforts had damaged the ongoing vaccination campaign in the country.

Because of threats by Taliban militant groups and ongoing military operations, the campaign was postponed in North Waziristan, South Waziristan and the Bara tehsil of Khyber Agency.

The political agent in North Waziristan had convened a Jirga of local clerics and elders to find a solution, but they said they were in no position to challenge the Taliban.

Some parents had to take their children outside the North and South Waziristan for vaccination. “Because I know the repercussions, I brought my children to Peshawar for vaccination. Now I am afraid of the repercussions if the Taliban militants find out,” a Wana resident said.

On July 17, on the second day of the campaign, gunmen fired at a WHO vehicle in a Pashtun dominated neighborhood of Gadap Town of Karachi. Dr Constant Dedo, a consultant from Ghana overseeing the drive, and his driver were injured. Three days later in the same neighborhood, Muhammad Ishaq, a local employee for the Polio Eradication Initiative in Pakistan, was killed.

Although there is no claim of responsibility for the attacks so far, police officials believe Taliban militants may be involved. Law enforcement agencies have arrested a number of militants linked with Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other banned militant outfits from the same neighborhood.

Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria are the only three endemic countries where the disease remains. Militancy in Afghanistan and some parts of Pakistan has led to a rise in polio cases in those areas, imperiling efforts to wipe out the disease worldwide, said a study published on July 4 in prestigious British medical journal The Lancet.

  • On July 17, gunmen fired at a WHO vehicle in a Pashtun dominated neighborhood of Karachi, injuring a consultant from Ghana overseeing the drive
  • Three days later in the same neighborhood, a local employee for the Polio Eradication Initiative in Pakistan, was killed
  • A polio vaccinator was beaten up on July 16 by an Islamabad-based Pashtun family that refused the administration of anti-polio drops to their child
  • Bullets were fired at a vaccination team in Jacobabad district of Sindh
  • A cleric in Muzaffargarh announced at a local mosque on July 12 that Jihad should be waged against the visiting polio vaccination team
  • A cleric in Muzaffargarh announced at a local mosque on July 12 that Jihad should be waged against the visiting polio vaccination team

Last year, Pakistan reported the highest number of polio cases in a decade, 198 in total, compared to 144 in 2010, while Afghanistan had 81 cases – up from 30 the year before. This year so far, 23 cases of polio have been reported in Pakistan, a distinct improvement on the 59 reported by the same date last year.

The eradication of poliomyelitis in some parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan has been complicated by armed conflict, security concerns, cultural barriers and natural disasters that have limited accessibility, the study states, adding that newly introduced vaccines had the potential to eliminate polio in these countries if sufficient numbers of children could be reached.

The WHO has also warned that if Pakistani authorities failed to contain the Polio virus, several countries would be compelled to impose travel and visa restrictions on Pakistanis to make sure that the virus does not spread to their territory.

A major outreach hurdle is a propaganda campaign against the immunization drive by religious elements, and misconceptions associated with the vaccination drive, health experts say. Religious extremists had persuaded a large number of Pashtuns in the past that the polio vaccine was un-Islamic and was being administrated at the behest of the West to sterilize their children, said Abdul Waheed, a Karachi-based social activist who runs an anti-polio campaign in the Pashtun-populated areas in Karachi. “Not only in tribal agencies or remote districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, we found several cases of parents living in Islamabad, Karachi and Quetta not allowing their children to be vaccinated,” he said.

A polio vaccinator was brutally manhandled on July 16 by an Islamabad-based Pashtun family that refused the administration of anti-polio drops to their child, according to a news report. Bullets were fired at a vaccination team in Jacobabad district of Sindh. A cleric in Muzaffargarh declared the polio campaign un-Islamic and announced on July 12 at a local mosque that Jihad should be carried out against the visiting polio vaccination team. Mufti Abdul Qayyum, uncle of a two-year old child from Quetta who is the latest victim, did not allow vaccination saying it was ‘haraam’.

But the government and civil society organizations have several success stories too. “With the help of local clerics and the support of the government, we convinced the parents, especially the Mehsud tribesmen who were displaced from South Waziristan, that Islam doesn’t prohibit polio vaccination,” said Waheed, a leader of Bright Educational Society, a Karachi-based NGO.

The writer is a journalist and a researcher. Email: zia_red@hotmail.com

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