Hope for polio eradication takes a bullet

Standard

Karachi

Salma Jaffar, 35, lies on a stretcher, barely able to talk to her relatives on the cell phone.A bullet had pierced her chest and another one her arm just as she was releasing polio vaccine from a dropper into a child’s mouth in Qayyumabad, a locality with mixed ethnicity.

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She saved her life and that of the child who was in her arms by jumping inside the house. But three other members of her team, Anita Zafar, Akbari Begum and Fahad Khalil, were unable to survive the barrage of bullets fired by four men who had come on two motorcycles. A passerby, Ali Asghar, also suffered injuries.

The brazen attack on Tuesday not only jeopardised anti-polio efforts in Karachi, but in the entire province. The vaccination campaign has been suspended for now. Polio workers have also refused to participate in the immunisation campaign across the province until they are provided with adequate security.

Unfortunately, Pakistan is one of the only three countries in the world where polio remains endemic, along with Afghanistan and Nigeria. One of the major reasons for this is the series of Taliban attacks on vaccinators.

The Taliban oppose anti-polio campaigns saying that they are some kind of a “sinister plot to sterilise Muslims”. The World Health Organisation had recently warned that Peshawar was the world’s “largest reservoir” of polio virus.

Seemin Jamali, the in-charge of the Jinnah Hospital’s emergency ward, said the three polio workers were already dead by the time they were brought to the hospital. “The passerby suffered minor injuries and has been discharged, while Salma is still undergoing treatment,” she added.

No security

The biggest question that is being raised following the Qayyumabad attack is about the lack of security for the vaccinators. Korangi Town Health Officer Dr Syed Hussain said the team started off their duties without any security protocol.

“Police were unavailable till 11am, and we thought the area was safe,” he added.

Qayyumabad has a mixed population including Mohajirs, Sindhis and Pakhtuns. “This wasn’t a troubled area like Gadap or Sohrab Goth where vaccinators are attacked. There has never been any problem in this locality during [the previous] anti-polio campaigns,” said Hussain.

Polio vaccinators usually face resistance in the Pakhtun-dominated areas of the city where the Taliban have a significant presence.

The Qayyumabad attack was the first incident of its kind reported in District East of the city.

SSP East Muhammad Shah said police had told the town health officer that the team should not be dispatched before a police van reached there at 11am.

“There has been an increase in reports about extremists gaining a foothold in the area,” he added.

“The standard operating procedure is that all polio teams should leave with security protocol.”

What next?

The attack has left polio workers, who were already worried about their security, more frightened and demoralised. Mazhar Khamesani, the in-charge of the Expanded Programme on Immunisation Sindh, said the anti-polio drive had been suspended in the province until further notice.

He demanded proper security steps for all polio workers in the province. “The morale of our workers has reached its lowest ebb.”

Khamesani said almost 80 percent of the workers were volunteers hired from nearby localities for Rs250 a day with a target of vaccinating 150 children.

Dr Ashfaq Ahmed, a health officer in North Nazimabad, said the attack would make it very hard to motivate vaccinators to continue participating in the campaign.

Muhammad Saeed, who supervises polio teams, said the vaccinators, most of whom were women, were being pressured by their families to stop working because of the dangers involved.

Fatima Ali, a polio worker, said she and her colleagues are labelled brave soldiers, but the fact was that they were just looking to earn some extra money.

“We cannot risk our lives only for a few rupees.”

Seven polio cases were reported in Karachi last year. The Taliban and fundamentalist religious groups propagate that the American CIA is behind the polio vaccination drives as part of a conspiracy against Muslims.

To counter them, aid organisations have distributed pamphlets continuing 24 fatwas in favour of the anti-polio campaign in localities where the vaccinators face resistance, but the attacks continue.

The Sindh chief minister announced Rs500,000 each in compensation for the polio vaccinators slain in Qayyumabad.

Abdus Sattar Edhi, the octogenarian social worker, announced compensation of Rs100,000 for the families of slain health workers.

picture courtesy The News

story originally published here

In city’s Pakhtun areas, war on polio extremely hard

Standard

Karachi

When asked about the utility of the polio vaccine, Mirdaat, an eight-year-old Afghan waste picker calls it “an American conspiracy to wipe out the Muslim race”.

He holds the same opinion about blood screening for hepatitis. “Health workers will sell our blood to America. There is honour in Pakhtun blood. It cannot be sold.”

Eight other little waste pickers accompanying Mirdaat nod their heads in agreement.

After a controversial CIA-funded hepatitis B campaign, the polio vaccination drive in the Pakhtun-dominated localities of Karachi – where many Taliban militants are holed up – has suffered a serious setback.

So much so, that the CIA’s campaign to ensnare Osama Bin Laden was misconstrued as a polio vaccination drive.

Since mid-July last year, 17 health workers and five policemen involved in anti-polio campaigns have been killed and 14 others wounded by militants in 25 attacks across the country.

In December, five female vaccinators were shot dead in Karachi and Peshawar.

On May 13, Abdul Waheed, a social activist, was gunned down after he began a polio eradication campaign at his school. The campaign was hurriedly wrapped up.

Pakistan remains one of the three endemic countries for polio, along with Afghanistan and Nigeria. However, despite security threats, the country has made significant progress towards polio eradication in the last 18 months, according to a recently published report, “End Polio Pakistan”, by the WHO and Unicef.

There were 46 polio cases reported in Pakistan this year, 34 in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) and seven in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Both areas are affected by militancy and military operations. In Sindh, four cases were reported this year.

 Polio prevention

The polio virus infects only human beings therefore it cannot survive in an area where all inhabitants are vaccinated.

A case was reported recently wherein a minor girl in Gadap Town had contracted polio despite being vaccinated.

A child needs to be administered polio drops in every round of vaccination to strengthen immunity.

“Some children develop immunity after five or six doses. Most need as many as 10 doses. Where children are malnourished, more doses are needed,” it was stated in the Unicef report.

Considering the levels of malnourishment in Pakistan, which according to the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, affect 48 percent of the population, parents should never miss a polio drive.

Many Islamic scholars and religious institutions have endorsed the vaccine, terming it halal. They include the Darul Uloom Deoband India, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, the International Union for Muslim Scholars, and the imams of Masjid al-Aqsa in Jerusalem and Al-Azhar Masjid in Cairo.

Moreover, all hajj pilgrims are now required to be vaccinated against polio.

Abdullah Bukhari, an elder of the Afghan Basti near Sabzi Mandi, gives an open invitation to health workers.

“We are aware of the health concerns that involve our people. If polio vaccinators face any hurdles, they are free to contact me. I will personally accompany them to ensure their safety.”

October 24 is marked as World Polio Day