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Pakistan: Taliban Block Polio Efforts

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Efforts to combat polio in Pakistan have received a sudden setback just as the fight against the disease had seemed to be going well, with the Global Polio Eradication Initiative reporting only 22 cases in the country this year, a distinct improvement on the 59 reported by the same date last year.

Hafiz Gul Bahadur, an influential Taliban commander in the North Waziristan tribal agency, has banned polio vaccinations, prompting Taliban leaders in South Waziristan and other tribal areas to follow suit, according to Maulana Mirza Jan, head of the `shura’ or assembly of religious scholars, in Wana, the principal city of South Waziristan.

“It will be hard” to persuade the militant leaders to change their minds, until “orders come from Bahadur”, Jan told IRIN.

Fawad Khan, director of health services for the tribal belt, said “some 240,000 children would be affected in North and South Waziristan if the polio drops were not given,” and that the three-day anti-polio drive which began in the country on 16 July had been called off in North and South Waziristan. Government representatives are attempting to work out a deal with Taliban leaders, according to Khan.

Meanwhile, there are alarming signs the problem may be spreading beyond the tribal belt into other areas. On 16 July a doctor delivering polio drops in the Sohrab Goth area of Karachi, dominated by a Pashtoon population, had their vehicle shot at by unknown gunmen. The doctor, a Ghanaian national, and his Pakistani driver were injured.

“We cannot yet say the incident in Karachi is related to events in the tribal areas,” Michael Coleman, communication specialist for the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), told IRIN from Islamabad. He, however, said the incident was disturbing, as teams delivering health services were not usually targeted.

Coleman confirmed the anti-polio drive in North and South Waziristan had been more or less suspended for the time being, given the danger to health workers, but that “teams have been able to reach parts of South Waziristan and vaccinate some 7,000 children – approximately 10 percent of the total number of under-five children in the agency.”

Drones and spies

The whole issue is a complex one, wrapped up in politics. Hafiz Gul Bahadur has said polio teams will be allowed into the tribal belt only if US drone attacks targeting militants are stopped.

The Taliban have also expressed fears health workers delivering polio drops may be used as spies, as happened in the case of Dr Shakil Afridi, the doctor who controversially used a mock anti-polio drive in a bid to pinpoint the location of al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden. Afridi has been sentenced to a 33-year jail term under the justice system of the Khyber Agency.

“Since the Afridi case, we were afraid there would be a backlash against polio teams affecting the campaign,” Rakshanda Bibi, a health worker who has previously visited tribal areas with anti-polio teams, told IRIN. “It is the innocent children who will suffer because of this,” she said.

The 198 polio cases in 2011 were the highest recorded anywhere in the world, triggering renewed efforts at the highest levels this year to ensure the problem was controlled.

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IRIN

IRIN is an independent, non-profit media organization. IRIN delivers unique, authoritative and independent reporting from the frontlines of crises to inspire and mobilise a more effective humanitarian response.

One thought on “Pakistan: Taliban Block Polio Efforts

  • July 19, 2012 at 6:19 pm
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    These idiots should all be dealt with with force for depriving innocent children of a vital drug to ensure a normal life. They are criminals who have been allowed to roam free for too long, a concerted effort should be made to eradicate this ugly menace which is plaguing Pakistan and Afghanistan. Education should be the biggest priorty, jobs second and the beast will die.There is ample opportunity in both countries to create large scale employment in mining agriculture and so forth. The leaders need to go and younger people from non feudal background should take over and infuse new life into both Pakistan and Afghanistan Feudalism has ruined the region. Look at India they did away with it soon after partition. There is got to be a revolution of ideas. People holding power today have done so for their own gains and nothing else.

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