Pakistan and Afghanistan are the only two countries that are still faced with the menace of polio. The disease, which predominantly targets young children under the age of five, can affect the spinal cord and result in lifelong paralysis. In the case of Afghanistan, the country has been facing civil war and armed conflict for decades. Hence, the anti-polio fight has been deemed complicated. But in Pakistan, observers reiterate, it should not have been an issue.
According to the available data, Pakistan was reporting 20,000 cases per year in 1994, when the anti-polio mission was initiated. By 2004, 10 years into the mission, the country was reporting 30 cases per year. Medical experts termed it a major success. However, post 9/11, the situation has completely changed for Pakistan as a war broke out in the border region of Pakistan-Afghanistan, and militancy started to spread across the country.
Along with suicide bombings and terrorist attacks, the militants also started to target the polio workers across the country. According to militants, multiple religious scholars, and even a large part of the society, the polio vaccine is being used by the US and the West, to destroy fertility and immune system while simultaneously facilitating spying. Therefore, a number of families across the country refused to get their children vaccinated. However, it didn’t stop here; the militants started to attack and kill the polio workers and security officials, on duty with the workers.
One of the critical reasons behind these militant attacks on polio workers is CIA spying operation on Osama Bin Laden before his assassination in an operation in 2011. The American intelligence agency deployed the services of Dr Shakeel Afridi, who headed a fake polio drive in Abbottabad near the compound of Bin Laden. The fake drive was launched to collect DNA samples of Bin Laden’s children. US armed forced did kill the Al-Qaeda chief, but it deeply impacted the anti-polio mission in Pakistan.
Over 100 polio workers have been killed in Pakistan since 2012. The attacks have been specifically carried out in northwestern region of the country. Meanwhile, in 2020, six attacks have been launched against polio workers and security officials. At least five officials have been killed in these attacks, while at least three have been injured. In September, two officials were injured in two different attacks in Dadu, Sindh and Chaman, Balochistan.
According to Chaman Assistant Commissioner (AC) Zakaullah Durrani, “The suspects first opened fire at the Levies guard with the team and then fired at the women.”
Due to these attacks, along with inefficient policies by the government, the polio cases have increased in the country. The cases were brought down to eight in 2017 and 12 in 2018. However, they jumped to 147 in 2019 and 79 in 2020 so far. This shows the dire need of imminent steps to stop these attacks against polio workers and the threats faced by those participating in the drive to eliminate the disease.
Although, the security forces have largely tackled the militancy after extensive military operations, these attacks still continue. Experts say that in order to stop these attacks, the government needs to work on the grassroots level; it needs to win the trust of locals, strengthen the small communities, take the support of religious scholars and use the teachings of religion to stop these attacks.
Scholars reiterate that since the militants use the propaganda by twisting religious facts, the government can correct them using their own argument and provide solutions through the teachings of Islam.