Features | Society | South Asia

Pakistan: Losing The War Against Polio

Attacks on health workers following the bin Laden raid are hampering efforts to eradicate the disease.

By Taha Siddiqui for

Every morning, Saif-ul-Islam takes his youngest daughter out for a drive in his van before heading to his job. Working in the transport business, the van is also his livelihood. His daughter, Solaim, who is a year old now, is Islam’s favorite child, he confesses.

The favoritism is not because Solaim is the youngest; it's because a few months ago she contracted the polio virus, which has left her lower body completely paralyzed.

“If I had allowed her to be vaccinated, she would not have lost her legs,” says a visibly agonized Islam, adding that he cannot stop thinking about the day when he said no to the polio team that visited his home a few weeks before his daughter was attacked by the deadly virus. “I regret it every day. I worry about her future. Who will take care of a disabled person if we are not there?”

Saif-ul-Islam lives in Mardan District, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Province, Pakistan, which borders Afghanistan. This is ground zero in Pakistan’s battle to eradicate polio, which has now spread beyond KP and has put at risk the well-being of millions of children across South Asia.

Islam explains that he refused the vaccine because of what the elders and religious clerics in his village had told him. He speaks of a cleric near his house, a preacher at one the largest mosques in the area. A visit to the mosque is rebuffed; the administrators do not welcome inquiring journalists.

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Outside, however, worshippers exiting after offering Friday prayers do not try to hide their spite for the polio vaccination.

“There is pig fat in it,” exclaims a bearded man in his early twenties, wearing a skull cap. Others shout “yes” in unison. “They want to sterilize our children. It is a conspiracy by the West to eradicate the Muslim population,” another adds.

When asked where they heard this from, one of the men replies, “You should check out the Zarb-e-Momin. It contains detailed proof.”

Zarb-e-Momin is a newspaper launched in the 1990s by Al-Rashid Trust, an organization that came into the U.S. crosshairs after 9/11, when Washington declared it to be financing international terrorism. The organization has since gone underground but it continues to publish the newspaper in two languages – English and Urdu, the national language of Pakistan.

Known to be a mouthpiece of Al-Qaeda, Zarb-e-Momin regularly features articles that call for “jihad against the enemies of Islam”. The paper is distributed free outside many mosques and religious seminaries across Pakistan.

Another newspaper that regularly rails against the polio vaccine is the popular Daily Ummat. It is also published in Urdu and is known for its extremist right-wing views. The paper ran an “investigative” series on polio earlier this year, churning out conspiracy theories about the vaccine.

When the newspaper’s editor was contacted, he refused to be interviewed or identified. “There are multiple sources on the internet that verify our claims of the polio vaccine being not good for children,” he said in a telephone conversation before hanging up.

While many mainstream Urdu newspapers are responsible for legitimizing the conspiracy theories about polio vaccine, a blanket ban since last year on the entry of polio teams into the Waziristan region, the tribal belt of Pakistan where terrorist groups like the Taliban, Al Qaeda and their affiliates are headquartered, has further strengthened opposition to the vaccine among ordinary Pakistanis.

A spokesperson for Taliban commander Hafiz Gul Bahadur explains that the ban is in effect because of the drone attacks in the region. “Until the U.S. stops the drone attacks, we will not let the polio teams enter our area.” Speaking in an interview conducted in the city of Peshawar, the capital of KP province (the Pakistani government does not allow foreign media to visit Waziristan), the spokesperson, Jalal Wazir adds, “All these health and human rights organizations are working for the CIA. They just want to come inside and spy on us.”

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While access to Waziristan is near impossible, towns near the tribal belt are living examples of how the ban there is affecting the region. Take Lakki Marwat, where more than 80 percent of the families refused the polio vaccination even though the ban was never enforced in this town.

Many religious clerics here are known to be close to the Taliban. Mir Zahi Khan is one, and local health authorities say he has been visiting families trying to convince them to say no to the polio vaccine.

“Polio drops are like poison,” Khan says as he reaches out for a file in a shelf inside his single-room seminary, where he teaches local students the Quran. The file contains a bundle of photocopies of newspaper clippings and pamphlets, mostly from Zarb-e-Momin.

“How can the Americans, who are working with the Jews, be our friends? The Quran tells us that they are enemies of Islam,” he angrily replies when asked why he suspects a conspiracy behind polio drops.

Such theories against polio are not new. Ever since the 1990s, when the Taliban made inroads in many parts of Pakistan’s northwest, there have been suspicions that the polio teams are working for Western governments. Recently, the propaganda has turned deadly, with health workers being killed in brazen attacks by terrorists.

Pakistan is one of only three countries where polio remains endemic, the other two being Afghanistan and Nigeria. Even though global health organizations, with funding from the United States, Europe, Japan and other donors, have pumped in millions of dollars in aid to help eradicate the disease, the fight is far from over.

This was evident in 2011, when the disease saw a resurgence with 198 cases reported in Pakistan.

Of course, 2011 was also the year that the U.S. government conducted a raid in Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden, who was hiding in Abbottabad, a garrison town near the Pakistani capital city of Islamabad. Prior to the raid, as part of its investigations, the CIA employed a Pakistani doctor who led a fake vaccination drive in the area to collect evidence.

Since the raid, killings of polio workers have become routine. Many Pakistani health workers believe that the CIA’s cover was the final nail in destroying the credibility of more than 80,000 of their colleagues in the field across the country. It was also after the revelations of the fake vaccination drive that the Waziristan ban came in effect.

In less than two years, nearly 20 polio workers and four security officials have been killed in attacks on teams that administer the drops in monthly drives. In the latest attack this month, two workers were shot dead in broad daylight, in the Swabi district of KP province.

One of the deadliest coordinated attacks on the teams took place last December, in which nine polio workers were killed across Pakistan on three consecutive days. Following the attacks, the World Health Organization suspended the polio drives, and currently teams only operate with the police accompanying them.

Health worker Gulnaz was with her sister-in-law and niece visiting families for vaccinations in Karachi the week the terrorists began their coordinated attacks.

Both of her relatives were shot dead. “I was in the other lane, when suddenly I heard gunshots. There were a few quick fires and then silence,” Gulnaz says, who continues her work despite the risks and poor returns.

Gulnaz ran towards the sounds, finding her sister-in-law lying lifeless on the road, shot two or three times. A few meters away, she shows me a doorway and points to the gunshot marks on the wall. “My niece was trying to run into this house when they shot her and she fell in between this doorway,” she adds.

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According to Gulnaz, the attackers were young men who came with a child on a motorbike looking for the vaccinators, pretending to be in need of the drops. The local police has arrested a few suspects who they say belong to the terrorist group Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, the local faction of the Taliban.

“They attack us because they think we are spies, like the ones CIA used to hunt Bin Laden,” Gulnaz complains. Still, she says her resolve to continue being part of the drives is stronger now, even though she gets paid less than 100 dollars a month to do the job.

Her tone more decisive, she continues, “I do it in the memory of my relatives who were killed. I do it for the future of our children. And I do it because I want Pakistan to be healthy.”

Taha Siddiqui is an investigative journalist working with various local and international media outlets focusing on terrorism, politics and minority issues in the country. He tweets @TahaSSiddiqui