A crippled approach
Ashfaq Yusufzai reports on who is opposing vaccination
Every year the government conducts about nine National Immunisation Day campaigns to vaccinate about 5.2 million children in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and 900,000 in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). During each three-day campaign health workers carry out door-to-door immunisation both in urban and rural areas.
Since 1994, when the World Health Organisation declared emergency against polio, Pakistan has been aggressively campaigning to vaccinate 37 million children but the politicisation of the oral polio vaccine (OPV) has been hampering such efforts. Polio vaccination brought some success when Pakistan registered only 28 cases in 2005 which surged to 117 in 2008, 144 in 2010 and 198 in 2011, bringing it under tremendous pressure to stem out the circulation of polio virus.
In 2005, Maulvi Fazlullah, a former leader of Tehreek Nifaz Shariat-i-Muhammadi, began opposing the polio campaign from his FM Radio calling upon the people to not get their children immunised because it was against Islam to take medicine for a disease before it has infected someone. After two years, he was declared TTP leader of Swat chapter. Under Taliban’s rule from 2007 to 2009, Swat was off-limits to vaccinators; in FATA too, Taliban placed restrictions on the campaign.
In August this year, TTP banned vaccination in North and South Waziristan and warned that there will be no vaccination till the cessation of US drone strikes. Why did the Taliban take this extreme step? They had reasons. The TTP argued that the immunisation was a US ploy to send spies in the garb of vaccinators. They cited the example of Dr Shakil Afridi, who helped the US to reach Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad.
The TTP also question why the world is so concerned about polio eradication and protection against a disease that cripples children but is silent over the killing of children in drone strikes.
The situation in FATA and KP became extremely worrying for the world community as eradication of polio appeared difficult due to refusal of vaccination and presence of unimmunised children.
Of the 56 cases registered this year, 20 are from FATA and 25 from KP; half of these children were not immunised due to either refusal by their parents or because the vaccinators could not reach them due to Taliban’s influence.
The recent incident of killing of health workers is the most gruesome in the series of hostilities shown by the Taliban. However, it is very encouraging that majority of the 32,000 vaccinators are determined to carry out the campaign and protect the children from life-long disability. However, the decision to resume the immunisation process lies with the government which remains undecided.
Sarwat Begum survived firing in Charsadda but is still determined and undeterred.
“The situation was as bad a few years ago as it is today,” she says. “Our work is becoming dangerous with every passing day. On December 19, I was just a few yards away when some unknown people fired at a vaccination team in Charsadda but thank God we all survived,” she says. We took refuge in a nearby home and could only leave when the police provided escort to us, she adds.
There is no doubt that the Taliban are behind these attacks, because they have been opposing vaccination since long and had killed and injured doctors and health workers previously too. All my co-vaccinators are of the firm belief that Taliban want the campaign to stop and leave the children vulnerable to polio virus, she says.