By Zia Ur Rehman

July 25, 2012

KARACHI – The July 17 shooting of a World Health Organisation (WHO) doctor and the July 20 slaying of a polio vaccinator are efforts to disrupt Pakistan’s anti-polio campaign, government officials said.

The Pakistani government July 16 launched a three-day anti-polio campaign during which it planned to vaccinate 34m children up to age 5. The number of children immunised has not yet been released.

Passers-by examine the bullet-riddled vehicle of a World Health Organisation doctor whom gunmen attacked in Gadap Town, Karachi, July 17. Government officials and anti-polio campaigners termed the attack an attempt to disrupt the ongoing polio campaign. [Zia Ur Rehman]
However, Taliban militants recently vowed to bar vaccine teams from Pakistani tribal areas, including North and South Waziristan.

Attacks on health workers

On July 17, the second day of the vaccine drive, unidentified gunmen fired on a WHO vehicle, critically injuring Dr. Constant Dedo of Ghana and his Pakistani driver, said Muhammad Sultan, officer in charge at Sohrab Goth Police Station. Dedo was vaccinating children in the Gajro Union Council of Gadap Town, Karachi.

Surgeons treated Dedo for abdominal gunshot wounds, WHO spokeswoman Maryam Yunus told Central Asia Online.

Three days later, Muhammad Ishaq, a local employee for the Polio Eradication Initiative in Pakistan, was killed in Gadap Town.

Those were not the first attacks on WHO staff in Pakistan, Maryam said, adding the organisation will not suspend operations.

Law enforcement personnel detained 12 suspects from Union Council 4, Gadap Town, police said. The suspects have links to Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and other banned outfits, Sultan said.

Taliban threats harm children

With vaccine team members fearing for their lives, children in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) remain haunted by a disease that has been suppressed almost everywhere.

Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria are the last three countries where polio is endemic, meaning the transmission of indigenous wild poliovirus has never been halted.

Militancy in Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan has caused polio incidence to increase in those countries, imperilling the worldwide anti-polio battle, according to a study published July 4 in the British medical journal, The Lancet. Other reasons included cultural barriers and natural disasters.

Last year, Pakistan reported 198 polio cases, its highest number in a decade, up from 144 in 2010. Afghanistan had 81 cases, compared to 30 in 2010.

Fighting extremist disinformation

In the past, religious extremists convinced many Pashtuns that polio vaccinations were a Western plot to sterilise Muslim children and that they are un-Islamic. They preached against the vaccine in mosques, said Abdul Waheed, a social activist who assists anti-polio campaigns in Pashtun-dominated areas of Karachi. The situation has changed after the government made an effort to fight the misconception, he said, referring to a joint campaign by the government, the National Research and Development Foundation and about 3,000 clerics.

The Gadap area was one of only three reservoirs of polio in Pakistan from 2007 until mid-2011, along with FATA and the Quetta Block (Qilla Abdullah, Pishin and Quetta districts). However, Karachi has reported no cases so far this year, Dr. Elias Durry, WHO’s chief co-ordinator for polio eradication in Pakistan, told The Express Tribune.

“Like other parts of the country, Karachi has also many success stories,” Waheed, who also heads the Bright Educational Society, a Karachi-based civil society organisation, told Central Asia Online.

“With the help of local religious clerics and support of the government, we convinced the parents, especially the tribesmen displaced from South Waziristan, that Islam doesn’t prohibit polio vaccination,” he said.

The Koran clearly instructs all to protect their children from disease, said Qari Sardar Ahmed, a cleric from Qasba Colony, who participates in the government-civil society joint initiative. “We are trying our best to remove anti-polio vaccination misconceptions from the locals,” he said.

The government also has star power to draw on. On July 7 it named cricket superstar Shahid Afridi as its “polio celebrity champion.” He vowed to ensure no child would be harmed by polio in Pakistan.

Pakistani TV channels show Afridi asking viewers in Urdu and Pashtu to choose between crutches and a cricket bat for their children.

Still, attitudes can be slow to change. An Islamabad-based Pashtun family July 16 beat up a vaccinator who wanted to immunise its child, media reported.

A 2-year-old girl recently paid the price of extremist disinformation. The girl from Muslimabad Town, Quetta, was stricken and paralysed after her uncle, Mufti Abdul Qayyum, stopped her from being vaccinated, according to a statement by the Prime Minister’s Polio Monitoring and Co-ordination Cell (PMCC). The PMCC has written to the Balochistan secretary of health and to Islamabad authorities, asking them to educate recalcitrant families with Islamic teachings.

A PMCC team of social mobilsers and governmental officials finally converted Qayyum, who had convinced others not to vaccinate their children, into a pro-vaccination activist.

They did so by telling him that Saudi Arabia had eradicated polio using the same vaccine and that the entire Muslim Ummah was almost free of polio due to similar campaigns, The News reported July 23. Qayyum was also shown a video message by Maulana Rafi Usmani, an influential religious scholar from the Deobandi sect, and “fatwas” from other religious scholars.

After he was convinced, Qayyum reportedly launched a polio immunisation campaign in his neighbourhood, according to The News.