Polio vaccination teams are under attack — in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. Two policemen, guarding the vaccinators, were martyred in two separate incidents in Tank district last Saturday and Sunday. The first attack — in which a Frontier Constabulary officer was also injured — was claimed by TTP and came just a day after the militant group called off its ceasefire with the government. Whether or not the TTP was responsible for the second attack, it is clear that the security situation is becoming dangerous again. Pakistan is on the verge of beating polio, after only one new case was recorded in 2021, compared to 84 a year earlier. Polio vaccination has been one of the few unanimous successes of the PTI government, but attacks on polio workers or security officials travelling with vaccination teams can scare workers and parents, which, in turn, could derail the effort just inches from the finish line.
Experts have noted that the current gains of the polio vaccination programme could easily be reversed during the high transmission season, which we are in the middle of, making it even more important to ensure that the current vaccination drive is a success. It is also unfortunate that these attacks come just a few weeks after the leadership of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative praised Pakistan’s efforts. Meanwhile, questions are being asked on what the ceasefire achieved. Many reports have suggested that talks with the TTP were not going anywhere — and only provided them time to regroup.
Polio vaccinators, even with security, are soft targets, with attacks occurring with worrying consistency for several years. Given this year’s successes, policymakers need to start looking to the future, a ‘polio-free’ future where appropriate healthcare reforms make it easier and cheaper to vaccinate children at health facilities — which are generally more secure for all involved — rather than in door-to-door campaigns. Alternatively, they could look into ways to ensure that security is a right, rather than a privilege. It is, after all, a fundamental right of all citizens under the Constitution of Pakistan.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 14th, 2021.