Fighting against polio in Manghopir at her own risk


a baby being administered the life saving anti-polio drop

a baby being administered the life saving anti-polio drop


In Manghopir, the health centre is heavily guarded. A Rangers mobile stands at the gate. Uniformed soldiers stand in position; their overused AK-47s pointing at the main road ahead.

For the past few months, the centre has been used for two more purposes: a Rangers’ headquarters; and the residence of Farzana Baloch – a vocal woman who has been a part of local vaccination campaigns for the past 17 years. She heads a union council in Manghopir, a Taliban hotbed now.

In what was originally a simple job to provide healthcare at every doorstep, she and her family of six has been forced to leave her home and seek refuge in a few rooms at the centre, under the hawk-eyed guard of the paramilitary soldiers.

The problem? Delivering anti-polio vaccines in post-Osama Bin Laden world.

After reports emerge that the American intelligence agency used a fake hepatitis vaccination campaign to hunt down the Al-Qaeda chief, polio vaccination drive in Pakistan has suffered a major setback in Pakhtun-dominated localities.

Manghopir’s Sultanabad is no different.


“After the Mehsud Taliban took over entire neighbourhoods, it has been next to impossible for us to vaccinate the children against polio,” says Baloch, sitting in her sparsely furnished office at the health centre. “When we go to their houses, they invite us in for a cup of tea, and state that they just can’t get their children vaccinated against the polio virus.”

“Many of these families come to the centre later to get their children vaccinated against hepatitis and malaria, which are not part of the government’s door-to-door service, but take special care that the polio vaccine is not administered to them.”

The reason is propaganda from the pulpit and the pamphlets distributed, terming the polio vaccine a ploy by the West to render the Muslim world infertile.

“Why is the vaccination drive conducted only in Muslim countries?” are some of the questions Baloch has to answer frequently.

But recently there have been cases where mothers have quietly given anti-polio drops to their children when their husbands are not at home.

“The change has come through repeated advertisements run on the state television,” Baloch believes. “These Pakhtun families do not get cable television but rely on the good, old PTV for news and entertainment.”

She remembers how after Shakeel Afridi, the doctor who staged the CIA’s vaccination drive, was arrested by the law enforcers posters of Shahid Afridi, the famous cricketer working as a goodwill ambassador for international aid agencies, had to be torn off from the centre. “Both of them were ‘Afridis‘, and we were scared of a possible backlash,” says Baloch.

Intimidating presence

She has seen the worst days in the profession—days when she did not know if she would get home alive.

“Last year, young men from the Mehsud Taliban faction would sit in a neat row just outside my office. They never said anything but their presence was intimidating,” she said. “I asked all my workers not to talk to them, or confront them.”

There were times when she received threatening phone calls. “Stop what you are doing” the callers would say.

But she is happy with the change in her residence. “It’s safe here. And now my workers go in the field with the Rangers and police officials. They are not scared for their lives.”

“But when we enter a neighbourhood with the law enforcers, locals eye us with suspicion. They feel that we act as their spies.”

They have reason to do so. Often as soon as polio campaigns end, the paramilitary force launches a search operation. They pick up young boys and take them away for interrogation.

“For instance after we ended a campaign on July 5, the paramilitary conducted an operation the very next day,” says Baloch.

 More work

With the military operation in full swing in North Waziristan, she admits families of internally displaced persons, who have never been vaccinated, have begun arriving. This might mean added work for Baloch and her team.

“Sometimes I feel the vaccination drive is a never-ending hole which keeps on getting deeper. The polio vaccine is just an excuse. The actual fight is between the state and the people, who have taken up arms against it. Whenever the state decides the right way to tackle with this faction, polio would automatically become history.”

Her words make sense.

*her picture has not been published for security reasons

originally published here 


Hope for polio eradication takes a bullet



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.


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