The killing of eight polio workers in Pakistan within a span of two days is a serious setback to a global initiative to eradicate the virus from the last few polio-prone areas on the globe.
The attack on the female health workers began in the port city of Karachi Tuesday where four women were killed. Later Wednesday, four more were killed in the northwestern city of Peshawar taking the toll to eight.
Taking cognizance of the unreasonable violence on health workers, the United Nations and other agencies such as the World Health Organization and the UNICEF working on the immunization program have suspended all polio-related field activities in Pakistan.
The three-day immunization campaign began on Monday was intended to target parts of the country under severe attack by the virus, especially Karachi, the northwest and the tribal belt. The program involved more than 10 million health workers, according to government estimates.
While no one has claimed responsibility for the attack on polio health workers, the Taliban is suspected to be responsible behind the recent violence. The militant organization has been notorious for airing its opposition to the polio immunization program owing to their belief that the program is a cover for American espionage against the Taliban.
Last year, the Taliban became suspicious of about the immunization program after the case of a fake immunization program in Abbotabad, which was used by CIA to track down Osama bin Laden.
Other rumors such as the vaccine causes sterility or HIV AIDS are circulated by the Taliban to stall the health campaign. Sometimes, the Taliban in the lawless northwestern tribal region also want the US drone strikes to end against the compensation to allow the vaccination program.
The campaign by the Taliban to stall the polio immunization program is blatant assault on one of the most pressing health program, very much needed in Pakistan. In addition to Afghanistan and Nigeria, Pakistan is endemic to polio virus (according to UNICEF report) and the health program needs to sustain longer in order to target the complete eradication of polio from the subcontinent.
Polio is a highly contagious virus which is endemic in areas with poor sanitation and easily spreads through the fecal-oral route, via contaminated water or food. The spread of polio also happens with direct contact with a person infected with the virus.
The news of the UN and other agencies to withhold the immunization campaign is a serious setback, and if the program is not started sooner, the lag in immunization will cause the virus to spread and become a major health hazard for Pakistan.
It’s about time the Pakistani administration takes stringent measures to provide security to the health workers and restore the faith of world agencies in resuming the vital health mission in Pakistan.
A prolonged blockade would be fatal for Pakistan’s effort to eradicate polio. The Taliban, too, are not exempt from the effects of this virus. The militant organization needs to understand the criticality of the situation and let the program take place without any hindrance.
Other sources linked to within text.