There are few more dangerous jobs in Pakistan than being a polio vaccinator. In the last three months alone, 18 workers and one policeman, protecting the workers, have been killed in separate incidents around the country. The latest victim of the war against polio vaccination workers was a policeman who was protecting women workers in Mardan. Pakistan now has more cases of polio than any other country in the world and, with religious extremists deciding to go after vaccination workers, that number is likely to increase. Extensive media campaigns around the country have done little to allay suspicions that the vaccines are nothing more than a Western plot to sterilise our children.
One major problem is that of adequate security. Vaccination workers, particularly in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, complain that there is only one police escort assigned for every five or six teams of vaccination workers. Each team has two workers. On top of that, because of the obvious security threat, teams do not publicise in advance which areas they will be visiting. With no media announcements made, suspicion and hostility against the workers is further heightened when teams visit areas. The CIA did not help matters when it recruited Dr Shakil Afridi to carry out hepatitis vaccinations to collect DNA in the search for Osama bin Laden, as this affects the general perception of people carrying out vaccinations.
For now, the government has to ensure that each team of vaccination workers has better security. We cannot afford to reach a stage where the UN decides that it is no longer able to continue its work. Pakistan had nearly become a polio-free country and that is the target we need to continue working for. These killings should also serve as a reminder that the Taliban will continue to murder at will, and that they will target anyone who they do not approve of. There is only one lasting solution to this and that is to militarily defeat the Taliban once and for all.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 28th, 2013.