In the line of fire

Last month, a polio worker and two policemen were killed during a vaccination campaign in Datta Khel

In the line of fire


orth Waziristan, once known for drone strikes, is now in the spotlight due to the prevalence of polio. In the first six months of this year, all 11 cases of polio in the country have been reported from this district. One of the main reasons is the presence of a terror network in this region. Last month, a polio worker and two policemen were killed during a vaccination campaign in Datta Khel area.

Afghanistan and Pakistan are today the only countries affected by polio. What the two countries have in common is a poor law and order situation and the presence of terrorist elements. There have been endorsements of polio vaccination by religious scholars but terrorists continue to resist and attack vaccination teams in the name of religion. Billions of dollars have been spent by domestic and foreign organisations and governments to eradicate polio. A lot of money has been spent on training journalists and high-ranking government officials as well but the ultimate success has not come about.

The policemen, who accompany polio workers, are knocking on people’s doors to ensure that all children in the area get the vaccine.

There are four major challenges to polio eradication in the region.

First, several extremist organisations have declared polio workers their enemy after the killing of Osama Bin Laden. They say that the polio eradication campaign was in fact an intelligence operation to track him down. The second reason is the social structure. The third reason is the scourge of corruption. The fourth reason is ineffective communication by the government and health authorities.

Some observers have pointed out that the policemen and the polio workers have not been trained to deal with the threat to their security. In line with local tradition, police officers go from house to house and keep a respectful distance from the female polio vaccinators. During summer campaigns, the teams are exhausted from the heat. The transport arrangements for them are frequently adequate and no food or drink is provided. No wonder many police officers consider this duty an additional burden.

In areas having a recent history of violence, the policemen carry Kalashnikov-like rifles (AK-47) but often do not wear bulletproof vests to avoid the extra the weight and heat,. Dealing with an enemy lying in ambush in populated areas is a tough problem. By the time the policemen react the enemy has had a shot at them and I most cases fled from the scene.

Some security officials say it may be better to give the policemen high quality 9mm pistols instead of the assault rifles as this will improve their response time in case they are attacked. The polio worker receive only Rs 1,000 for a day’s work. This is not enough.

A polio worker The News on Sunday talked to said she faced two types of pressure. The first was acceptance by the society. In many areas the polio vaccinators are not respected. In some cases their own families resent their going leaving home and walking the streets for the work. She said the attitude of the families they visited was sometimes quite disrespectful.

The second type of pressure is that the polio workers are forced to be part of a campaign in which their lives are in danger due to economic hardship. When they leave the house, they look back at the family with the thought that they might not come back alive. During the campaign, there is constant fear. The stress also affects their relationships at home.

Several major foreign agencies, including the United Nations, have donated billions of dollars for polio eradication. Comparatively little is done for the welfare of the polio workers and their police guards who must put their lives at risk.

In 2019, a union council polio officer, Wajid Khan Momand, was shot dead in Mohmand district while was trying to persuade a vaccine-refusing family to let their children be vaccinated. Later, his family faced difficulty receiving compensation from the government under the Martyr’s Package.

Many journalists have discussed the subject with Taliban leaders during reporting in North Waziristan. They were told that the vaccination campaigns were an ‘anti-jihad’ ploy and an intelligence tool. The revelation that a mock vaccination campaign was mounted during the search for Osama bin Laden also damaged the campaign. More than 70 polio workers have since been killed. A rhetorical question the Taliban leaders would raise was why were they being attacked using drones on one hand and their children being vaccinated against polio on the other. Some of them also asked why other diseases were not getting as much attention.

Lack of information always creates space for conspiracy theories. North Waziristan is a terror-hit area that is still only partially accessible despite all the military operations. Recent changes in Afghanistan have had a direct impact on North Waziristan.

All of the polio cases in the country recently have been reported from North Waziristan. During the campaign. Some apparently irrelevant and strange demands have been raised in some areas in return for the polio teams to be allowed to work. These have included provision of tube wells and electric power.

There have been no reports of the health minister and the Police IG meeting after the killing of the polio workers. Health officials including those working on polio eradication continue to access to data from the National Database Registration Authority (NADRA).

So far, no political party has spoken out in public on polio eradication. More needs to be done to raise awareness among the people of the tribal areas on polio eradication.

The writer is a Peshawar-based journalist, researcher and trainer on terrorism, conflict and peace development. He can be reached at

In the line of fire