Crippling blow

Pakistan’s anti-polio campaign has been dealt a severe setback. A roadside bomb attack on two vans carrying a polio vaccination team in Pakistan’s Khyber Agency has left 12 people dead and an equal number wounded.

The dead include a child and several tribal policemen escorting the vaccination team. No militant group has claimed responsibility yet but Mullah Tamanchey, the leader of an outfit close to the Pakistan Taliban, is widely believed to have directed the attack. Pakistan’s polio vaccination campaign has come under fire from two sections; one is the conservative clergy who believe that vaccinating children will render them sterile and the other, are terror groups. The latter maintain that the anti-polio campaign is a government ruse to spy on their activities. This perception is based on the fact that US intelligence officials used a fake vaccination programme to hunt down Osama bin Laden in 2011. Since 2012, scores of polio vaccination workers have fallen to militant bullets. It was only after the government promised security that boycotting workers returned to participate in the campaign. The recent attack will undermine the confidence of these health workers again. It will cause incalculable damage to the effort to rid Pakistan of polio.

Pakistan is among a handful of countries that continue to report fresh cases of polio. In the circumstances any weakening of its vaccination campaign can prove catastrophic. There are lessons it can draw from India, which was declared polio-free recently. India’s anti-polio campaign too faced enormous opposition from an array of spoilers, including clerics. Its health workers educated the clerics on the impact of vaccination. Other spoilers were neutralised by involving them in the campaign. Pakistan could draw on these ideas.

As for the threat that terrorist groups pose to health workers, this is a problem that exists in several conflict zones across the world. Often governments use the military to build schools and clinics, transport food and medicine, immunize children, etc. In the process, the difference between soldier and health worker/aid worker is blurred and the latter become vulnerable to attacks by insurgents. The militarization of reconstruction must be blamed for these attacks.  The US’ use of the polio programme in Pakistan for counter-insurgency purposes was wrong. Misuse of the polio campaign as a Trojan horse to enter insurgent-controlled areas must halt now.

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