Four Polio Workers Killed In Pakistan As Crisis Worsens

While Africa continues its fight against an unprecedented Ebola outbreak, Pakistan is facing it own worsening health crisis as diagnosed cases of polio are found to have quadrupled in the past twelve months. While the people suffer, Pakistan is plagued by violent attacks against those working to deliver effective vaccination programs across the country. The latest attack, on Wednesday 26th November, left four polio workers dead and three injured.

The attack has highlighted the way in which militant groups in Pakistan are undermining the progress designed to halt the spread of polio infection. The New York Times reports that the attacks seem to stem from a general mistrust of vaccination programs on the part of these militant groups, with a Taliban splinter group having perpetrated a similar, smaller ambush near Peshawar earlier in the week. Such groups are known to consider these health programs a suspicious conspiracy by western authorities to sterilise Muslim children. However, legitimate Islamic organisations, along with many other countries in the region, have stated their support of the programs – declaring the militants to be violent opportunists.

Aziz Memon spoke on the issue in the course of his work with Rotary International – an organisation that has helped to immunize two billion children against polio across 122 countries around the world.

“It’s not just about polio – they want to disrupt all government activities. The children of this country should walk, not crawl. We promised to end this, and we will.”

Polio, also known as poliomyelitis is an infectious disease caused by the poliovirus. In cases where the infection involves the central nervous system, non-paralytic aseptic meningitis can occur, as can paralytic disease, leading to progressive muscle weakness. Depending on the area of the body affected, the disease can be fatal or can lead to lasting physical deformity. However, many infections – particularly in those with a robust immune system – remain asymptomatic. This means that a rise in diagnosed cases indicates a rise in those displaying noticeable physical symptoms. Such a rise therefore constitutes a serious health crisis.

While vaccination programs have helped to control and almost eradicate polio in most countries, it remains a problem in Pakistan, Nigeria and Afghanistan in particular. The rise in polio diagnoses in Pakistan is exacerbated by political conflict, which has seen the continual displacement of citizens as refugees. Pakistan’s largest cities – including Karachi – are seeing sharp increases in polio cases as a direct result from the influx of citizens from tribal districts that are experiencing violence. Political strife in Afghanistan and Nigeria adds to the problem as refugees vulnerable to polio infection, fleeing unrest in those countries, arrive in Pakistan and create a polio incubator, of sorts.

Mazhar Nisar Sheikh – spokesperson for the Health Ministry – explained the importance of security with regards to the vaccination programs.

“Ninety percent of cases are limited to parts of the country where security has been compromised.”

The latest attack took place in Quetta – at the heart of the Baluchistan Province – and struck in a place that has already become vulnerable to polio infection. Having been free of the illness for two years, ten cases have been reported in the past four months, leading to a targeted vaccination effort, which itself became a target of militant aggression.

Police official Asad Raza described the attack to Reuters.

“Two men on a motorcycle intercepted the van and shot the occupants using a handgun.”

Al Jazeera reports that the team of health care workers were beginning their “fourth and final day” of working in the area, when they came under attack. Despite the violence perpetrated against Pakistan’s polio immunization workers over the past two years, 450 million doses of vaccine have been administered in the country in an attempt to regain control of a situation already characterized by the World Health Organisation as an international emergency.

[Image via Google]