Polio campaigners refuse to work in high-risk Gadap without protection

Published: August 28, 2012

Security officials gather alongside a United Nations’ vehicle which had been attacked by unidentified gunmen in Karachi on July 17, 2012. PHOTO: AFP

KARACHI: Polio campaign communication officers tasked with monitoring high-risk areas are reportedly refusing to work because of a lack of protection, The Express Tribune has learnt.

Unicef’s COMnet officials are particularly concerned about the volatile area of Union Council 4 in Gadap. There are 59,431 children under the age of 5 in this union council.

COMnet is an active part of the Prime Minister’s Polio Emergency Plan on Polio Eradication. With a total base of 1,500 to 1,800 communications officers it is considered one of the largest social sector initiatives for polio ever undertaken in the country.

“There are clear-cut threats to our lives and the killing of our WHO colleague Ishaq Kakar is living proof of the threat we face on the ground,” said an official of the COMnet tasked with social mobilisation in Gadap.

The next sub-national campaign is scheduled for September 10. Gadap has already been classified as a high-risk area. Last month, sewage water tested positive for the virus, according to the WHO.

Unicef declined to comment but said that the Prime Minister’s Polio Cell should be contacted. Representatives at the cell, however, said that they have no control over the organisation’s employees. Unicef’s Development for Communications Officer for Polio section Sindh Rabia Amjad, who is the supervisor of the COMnet staff in Karachi, said that Unicef has left the final decision to the government.

In Gadap the resistance is apparent as some men who do not want the campaign to go forward have put up white flags and painted some walls white.

Deputy Commissioner of Karachi (East) Qazi Jan Mohammad did not deny the development. “There is a problem in UC4, however these officials are answerable to Unicef,” he said. “It is the responsibility of the government to provide security to these people, and we are working on it.”

An official with the Sindh government, who preferred to remain anonymous, said that the government has decided to form a security committee for the new campaign. It will assess the need for security and decide ahead of each round whether it should be carried out or not. “It is not tied to anybody’s demands, but we all know that security is a matter of concern in Karachi,” he said. The committee will focus primarily on troubled areas as Gadap. Members will include the home minister, Sindh’s secretary of health, EDO health Karachi and representatives from the WHO, UNICEF and security agencies.

In July, a polio worker was shot dead in Al Asif Square, Sohrab Goth. The same month, also in Sohrab Goth, assailants opened fire at a United Nations vehicle in Karachi, wounding a foreign doctor working on a three-day polio vaccination campaign.

“In light of the two incidents during the last campaign, we don’t think we should go into the area without security,” said a COMnet official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The official said that the government has not provided any security since the attacks. “There are no Rangers or police check posts.”

WHO employees tasked with the responsibility of working in Gadap also have concerns about working without security, added the COMnet official.  “It’s a sign for us to stay away too,” said the officer. According to them, there are about three Union Council Communication Officers and 11 Social Mobilisers from COMnet in the area.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 28th, 2012.

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