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The Infidel Drops: How Polio Became Part Of Pakistan's Terrorism Problem

20/04/2016 8:17 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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ASIF HASSAN via Getty Images
A Pakistani policeman holds a young girl as a health worker administers polio drops during a polio vaccination campaign in Karachi on January 11, 2016. Pakistan is one of only three countries in the world where polio remains endemic but years of efforts to stamp it out have been badly hit by reluctance from parents, opposition from militants and attacks on immunisation teams. AFP PHOTO / ASIF HASSAN / AFP / ASIF HASSAN (Photo credit should read ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Pakistan is one of the few countries in the world where polio continues to be widespread. Last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended travel restrictions on Pakistan due to the rising number of polio cases in the country.

Over the last two years, however, the government in Pakistan has allocated a substantial number of funds and attention to counter this potentially deadly disease. The government's dedicated drive to contain and eradicate the polio virus has produced results: polio cases in Pakistan have dropped by more than 70% compared to the number two years ago.

Above and beyond this optimism lies a challenge which has hampered Pakistan's polio eradication efforts more than the disease itself. Militants in the country, particularly the Pakistani Taliban, have relentlessly attacked polio immunization teams and have killed hundreds of polio workers, particularly in the North-West tribal regions of Pakistan where they had strong presence before Islamabad launched a military crackdown against them.

The Taliban's first onslaught came after revelations that the CIA in 2011 had put together a fake polio vaccination drive to gather DNA samples of Osama Bin Laden...

In January, during an immunization campaign, a Taliban suicide bomber targeted a polio vaccination centre in Quetta, Baluchistan, which resulted in the deaths of 15 people. In addition to suicide bombings, Taliban operatives have also carried out several kidnappings and shootings of polio workers across the country.

Polio in Pakistan has become part of the global terrorism problem. The Taliban's first onslaught against the polio vaccination campaign came after revelations that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in 2011 had put together a fake polio vaccination drive to gather information and DNA samples of Osama Bin Laden, who was suspected of hiding in a compound in a Pakistani city. Bin Laden was later killed by the US Navy Seals in a secret raid in Pakistan.

In Pakistan, anything even remotely tied with the West that suggests a conspiracy against the country, instantly provokes public rage. In such cases, religion often gets enmeshed in the picture. This has been true of Pakistan's polio drive has well. In the aftermath of the US raid on Osama Bin Laden's compound, the Taliban as well as religious scholars issued fatwas calling the whole exercise un-Islamic. Another medieval narrative that took hold was that the campaign was a Western conspiracy to sterilize girls, control the birth rate and that it also contained the AIDS virus. Several immunization programs in the country which have been supported and funded by various international NGOs have also been viewed with suspicion by the public. There have been reports of parents refusing immunization for their children due to the aforementioned reasons.

[T]he Taliban have demanded that unless the United States halts its drone strikes in the region, their war against polio immunization will continue.

Moreover, the Taliban is also trying to exploit the issue for its own ends. On many occasions, the Taliban have demanded that unless the United States halts its drone strikes in the region, their war against polio immunization will continue.

Pakistan's tribal regions, particularly the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA) and Baluchistan are the most affected areas as far as polio is concerned. And due to the tribal culture, these vicinities are more conservative than many other parts of the country. Therefore, it's more likely that any such misconceptions about why and how these campaigns are launched would be viewed seriously by the people of these areas. To counter such false impressions, however, the government has set up a pro-immunization network of Religious Support Persons (RSP).

The government-led End Polio Pakistan initiative has been nothing less than a war. It is fair to say that the polio workers in Pakistan have been protecting children at the cost of their own lives. The number of polio cases may have dropped in the last two years, but the threat to the lives of polio workers remains the same.

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