Efforts to combat polio in Pakistan have received a sudden setback just as the fight against the disease had seemed to be going well, with the Global Polio Eradication Initiative reporting only 22 cases in the country this year, a distinct improvement on the 59 reported by the same date last year.
Hafiz Gul Bahadur, an influential Taliban commander in the North Waziristan tribal agency, has banned polio vaccinations, prompting Taliban leaders in South Waziristan and other tribal areas to follow suit, according to Maulana Mirza Jan, head of the `shura’ or assembly of religious scholars, in Wana, the principal city of South Waziristan.
“It will be hard” to persuade the militant leaders to change their minds, until “orders come from Bahadur”, Jan told IRIN.
Fawad Khan, director of health services for the tribal belt, said “some 240,000 children would be affected in North and South Waziristan if the polio drops were not given,” and that the three-day anti-polio drive which began in the country on 16 July had been called off in North and South Waziristan. Government representatives are attempting to work out a deal with Taliban leaders, according to Khan.
Meanwhile, there are alarming signs the problem may be spreading beyond the tribal belt into other areas. On 16 July a doctor delivering polio drops in the Sohrab Goth area of Karachi, dominated by a Pashtoon population, had their vehicle shot at by unknown gunmen. The doctor, a Ghanaian national, and his Pakistani driver were injured.
“We cannot yet say the incident in Karachi is related to events in the tribal areas,” Michael Coleman, communication specialist for the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), told IRIN from Islamabad. He, however, said the incident was disturbing, as teams delivering health services were not usually targeted.
Coleman confirmed the anti-polio drive in North and South Waziristan had been more or less suspended for the time being, given the danger to health workers, but that “teams have been able to reach parts of South Waziristan and vaccinate some 7,000 children - approximately 10 percent of the total number of under-five children in the agency.”
Drones and spies
The whole issue is a complex one, wrapped up in politics. Hafiz Gul Bahadur has said polio teams will be allowed into the tribal belt only if US drone attacks targeting militants are stopped.
The Taliban have also expressed fears health workers delivering polio drops may be used as spies, as happened in the case of Dr Shakil Afridi, the doctor who controversially used a mock anti-polio drive in a bid to pinpoint the location of al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden. Afridi has been sentenced to a 33-year jail term under the justice system of the Khyber Agency.
“Since the Afridi case, we were afraid there would be a backlash against polio teams affecting the campaign,” Rakshanda Bibi, a health worker who has previously visited tribal areas with anti-polio teams, told IRIN. “It is the innocent children who will suffer because of this,” she said.
The 198 polio cases in 2011 were the highest recorded anywhere in the world, triggering renewed efforts at the highest levels this year to ensure the problem was controlled.