Tuesday March 28, 2023

Protecting polio teams

By Editorial Board
December 14, 2021

It is a tragic reality that those who offer their services to protect our children against the polio virus are themselves not protected. In yet another case, a policeman deployed to provide security to polio vaccination teams lost his life after a gunman opened fire in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Tank district on December 12. The frequency with which such attacks are taking place is alarming as it was the second such attack in two consecutive days. The fourth national immunisation campaign has just started and we are witnessing a security situation that is not well organised for the polio teams at work. The target for the campaign is to reach across the nation over 40 million children under five in 156 districts. The three-day campaign began on December 10 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and in other parts of the country on Dec 13.

In the last anti-polio campaign in September 2021 too, a policeman guarding a polio vaccination team lost his life after some assailants fired at him in Kohat. Before that in June 2021, two policemen were killed while protecting the vaccinators in Mardan. In January this year also similar attacks took place in Karak. In every drive against polio, thousands of policemen are deployed to guard the vaccinators, and themselves become vulnerable to such attacks. Since 2012, dozens of health workers and policemen have laid their lives in the line of duty during polio vaccination campaigns in the country. More than half of such attacks have taken place in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, with 20 polio workers and 10 police personnel having lost their lives in targeted attacks. Such incidents call for an overhaul of the security strategy, but no improvement has been visible. These campaigns are of vital importance for Pakistan as it remains one of the only two countries in the world where the polio virus is still existing and targeting children. An added advantage of such drives is also the inclusion of a supplementary dose of a Vitamin A capsule along with the polio vaccine.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, this campaign has become even more significant as the drive will also facilitate the process of Covid-19 vaccination for those 12 to 18 years old. The drive will also reach out to the over-18 population in 31 high-risk districts. To continue these drives substantial efforts are needed to improve the security of the teams across the country. If this drive fails to achieve the target just because of some security lapses, we are likely to lose all the gains that we have achieved for polio eradication, and also against Covid-19. The challenges for polio workers and their security providers are manifold. To reach every eligible child we need foolproof security and facilitation by all concerned government agencies – especially where attacks have become common. We need to solidify our campaigns by making no mistakes in the process. Nearly 300,000 frontline health workers are going house to house for vaccination – most of them accompanied by policemen for security. All of them are our heroes and deserve protection, respect, and security.