PESHAWAR: Volunteer polio vaccinators have backed away from the next immunisation drive in Khyber Agency after the murder of anti-polio campaign supervisor Ghilaf Khan on Saturday in Jamrud. Without their assistance, thousands of children will remain unprotected against the crippling virus.
Volunteers and Expanded Programme on Immunisation (EPI) staff have been gripped by fear after Ghilaf was targeted, Dr Usman Afridi, field supervisory medical officer for the EPI, told The Express Tribune.
He said 328 mobile teams – each comprising 2 volunteers – were meant to be part of the polio campaign in the agency. “But after the incident on Saturday, the volunteers have quit, saying their lives are at risk,” he said.
According to Afridi, volunteers’ pulling out midway through the anti-polio drive would mean thousands of children would not be immunised against polio in Khyber Agency.
Ghilaf was the fourth polio volunteer targeted in the month of December in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata).
On December 13, polio worker Yousaf Khan was gunned down, also in Jamrud, Khyber Agency. Yousaf was on his way home from fieldwork when he was murdered. The same day, two policemen were gunned down in Swabi while they were on escort duty with polio immunisation team.
With what seems to be a successful guerrilla war on hapless polio workers, forms of soft power are being used to cajole wary parents, fearful workers and recalcitrant local religious figures to help increase the rate of vaccinations.
After Ghilaf’s death, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) chief Imran Khan said he would not be scared into abandoning the issue of polio vaccinations. Imran had recently kicked off an inoculation campaign in the K-P.
Also, Maulana Samiul Haq of Darul Uloom Haqqania issued a decree recently, urging parents to immunise their children against polio. He announced the vaccination used is “Shariah compliant.”
Yet, 17,138 refusal cases were reported during December 19 -21 polio vaccination drive held across nine districts of the province, a K-P health department official told The Express Tribune.
He said 5,193 refusal cases were reported from Bannu, 4,280 from Lakki Marwat, 3,234 from Nowshera, 2,265 from Mardan, 1,508 from Peshawar, 368 from Hangu, 170 from Tank, 109 from Kohat, and 11 from Karak.
The official said while the department faced mounting pressure from the government, the militants – on the flip side – were taking it out on polio teams, one worker at a time.
The EPI personnel feel compelled to quit in the face of security risks and high pressure. Even with additional security and money, volunteers and teachers who double as vaccinators are not willing to take part in the campaign. This leaves the department in a quandary, he said.
Without resolving security issues, poliovirus cannot be eradicated from Pakistan, stated the official. According to an EPI official, Pakistan has recorded 77 polio cases in 2013, compared to 58 in 2012.
About Ghilaf Khan
Speaking of the late supervisor, Ghilaf Khan, the EPI field supervisory medical officer Dr Usman Afridi said Ghilaf had left behind his widow and three sons. According to Afridi, Ghilaf was known for his honesty and punctuality. Ghilaf joined the EPI in May 2011 as a supervisor and was a resident of Bara tehsil.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 23rd, 2013.