Pakistan today remains (with Afghanistan and Nigeria) one of the only three countries in the world to still have polio, despite its earnest polio eradication campaign. The polio virus spreads from person to person and remains endemic, putting millions children in the three mentioned countries at risk of paralysis.
The fight against polio is not Pakistan’s only fight in this campaign. The polio workers involved in the polio eradication campaign are perpetually attacked by the Taliban. Many lives have been lost.
The country has lost hundreds of polio workers, health staff and vaccination teams, both men and women, because of the Taliban who have waged an open and brutal war against polio workers.
Most recently, two policemen in Swabi were killed by gunmen on a motorcycle while they were on duty to provide security to polio vaccinators. In a similar incident in Peshawar, armed unknown men attacked groups of several polio workers, killing one.
According to government figures, about one and a half million children are at risk of contracting polio in Pakistan.
Although this situation has lead to several boycotts and interruptions in the government’s campaign against polio, the underpaid ($2.5/day) polio workers have shown bravery and resilience across the country in continuing their work in valiantly providing polio drop services door-to-door, city-to-city, village-to-village.
In Khyber Agency, polio workers frustrated with a lack of security and the continuous loss of personnel, went on a rare strike boycotting operations and demanding that the government of Pakistan to give them protection.
A surgeon in Khyber Agency, Dr. Sameen Jan, told The Diplomat that the killing of the health department official recently in Jamrud has reignited anger among the workers not only in Khyber Agency but across the country. “There is no protection for polio workers anywhere in the country. They can be attacked in or outside their homes, or during their vaccination drive activity, like this recent health official’s killing.”
The boycott, which was rather brief, came after several murders of polio workers by the Taliban in the country. Since July 2012 alone, about 31 polio workers have been murdered in Taliban attacks on these anti-polio campaign workers in Pakistan.
Abdul Mateen, a medical supervisor, told The Diplomat that “The situation has gotten so bad that now our polio workers need to be guarded and the government should provide them with trained security personnel, preferably the police.”
Mateen said they had called off the boycott now, and paramedics and health staff had resumed their duties this week as the Paramedic Association and other boycotters were ensured by the political administration in Jamrud that they will be provided foolproof security. But polio workers across country still continue operations in the increasingly insecure environment, where the Taliban seem to find their way to continue these attacks.
“The incidents across country show that the Taliban have different strategies to attack the polio workers and that they are good at adapting to new locations and environments to get close enough to the workers to be able to attack them.”
He referred to the incident in Karachi in which two polio workers were killed, with the inadvertent aid of an Imam at a mosque where the workers were hiding from the shooters.
According to surgeon in Jamrud, the anti-polio drive had already been carried out in 13 locations while 38 were still left. The authorities have tightened the security banning any pillion bike riders – as most attacks have been carried out on pillion motorcycles.
These safety situations that are life threatening to many polio workers in Pakistan have made a hard task harder, but have not stopped them from coming out and continuing their service in fighting polio in Pakistan. Despite the Taliban threat, Abdul Manan, a polio worker who watched two of his colleague being killed, continues to work and supports his other colleagues. “We are also fighters and we will continue this fight till Pakistan becomes a polio-free country for our children,” he told The Diplomat.