Why is Polio Still a Problem in Pakistan? Blame the Taliban

A gunman shot a policeman protecting a group of female anti-polio health workers in Northern Pakistan on Wednesday, killing him and wounding one other. Pakistan is currently only one of three countries where cases of polio are still on the rise, the other two being Afghanistan and Nigeria. However, in all three countries, it is becoming increasingly difficult for health workers to administer vaccinations without endangering their own lives.

There has been no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack in Pakistan, but the Pakistani Taliban has continuously targeted health workers administering vaccinations in the past. They claim that the health workers are U.S. spies, and their suspicions were only deepened when, following the May 2011 raid, it was found out that the CIA had indeed used a Pakistani doctor to run a fake vaccination camp in order to gain access into Bin Laden's northern Pakistan compound.

The Taliban militants have increased attacks on health workers since, including an attack on five female Pakistani health workers late last year in December in Karachi, Pakistan's largest and currently most violent city, as they were waging their three-day national immunization campaign. The increased violence has made it increasingly more difficult for them to eradicate polio in the region without losing their own lives.

Similarly in Nigeria, anti-polio health workers have faced the same difficulties in administering vaccinations. Just in February, two radio journalists and a local cleric were charged for allegedly inciting violence and sparking the deaths of at least nine female workers who were gunned down while trying to administer the oral vaccinations. No group had claimed responsibility for the actual attack, but it was widely believed that the Boko Haram, a militant group who has been waging a guerrilla campaign across northern Nigeria, was responsible.

The Nigerian's suspicions against the polio vaccinations aren't vested in secret spies and intelligence as the Pakistani's. Instead, many northern Nigerians believe that the vaccine drops would sterilize young girls.

These suspicions initially formed in 2003 when a Nigerian physician heading the Supreme Council for Shariah led people to believe that the vaccines were "corrupted and tainted by evildoers from America and their Western allies."

This type of fear-mongering by religious extremists and general distrust of the West and the U.S. has only made matters worse for children of these countries where vaccination is readily accessible via health workers, yet still nearly impossible to safely administer. According to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, Nigeria saw 121 new cases of polio last year, in while Pakistan saw 58 and 37 in Afghanistan, and unless the governments of these countries effectively apprehend the militants and work to dispel the false beliefs regarding vaccinations, it is unlikely that these numbers will decrease in coming years. 

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Areej Elahi-Siddiqui

A Pakistani-American undergraduate student at the Seton Hall's School of Diplomacy and International Relations. She enjoys watching inordinate amounts of television, reading far too many books and drinking lots and lots of coffee.

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