In a string of attacks across the country, five members of polio vaccination teams have been murdered – four in Karachi and one on the outskirts of Peshawar. All of the health workers killed were women, the youngest a 14-year-old volunteer. The victims, all Pakistani nationals, were working on behalf of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and its local partners. Tuesday was the second day of a nationwide three-day drive to eradicate polio, which is a very real crisis in the country. The Taliban had already threatened that they would target these brave health workers, saying they would ‘regret’ spreading infidel practices. The WHO has now suspended its polio vaccination programme in Karachi.
It is being widely reported that the police had not provided any security to the teams of vaccinators. Considering the threats these polio vaccination workers had been receiving and their vulnerability – women travelling in difficult (and often remote) areas – there has been a remarkable lack of protection provided by any government agency. At the very least protection, should have been provided to those teams that were working in the most dangerous areas, which are well known to one and all. Not to have done so displays a serious abdication of responsibility. The deadly virus that killed these women is called ‘obscurantism’. The fight against polio in Pakistan is crucial to its global eradication, and if we are unable to contain it by vaccination then there is a serious possibility that WHO is going to impose a travel ban on Pakistan in the near future. This will mean that those who cannot provide proof of vaccination will not be allowed to enter countries certified as polio-free. It takes little imagination to understand what impact this would have on a population that is highly mobile and travels internationally. If the current or any future government is really serious about tackling the polio threat then they need to strengthen the resources of those who are working towards ensuring polio eradication in the country. There need to be public information films and notices across every media platform, print and electronic, to counter the regressive and dangerous tales of those who see polio vaccination as some sort of plot hatched by the infidels. A sustained public information campaign can be launched in schools, mosques and other public spaces. The obscurantists are not only busy bombing their way across large parts of the country, they now also want to condemn us to a life in a wheelchair or on crutches. The government has a choice to make: either we stop them or we become a crippled and sick nation.