Blame game: Washington blamed for ruining anti-polio effort

Sherry, Shahnaz say use of Dr Afridi in phony vaccination drive hurt UN-backed campaign.

Sumera Khan July 30, 2012


Even though Pakistan is closer than ever to polio eradication, it has now held the US responsible for hampering its efforts to purge the debilitating disease from the country, saying US activities, specifically the spy hunt for Osama bin Laden, have hurt the UN-backed anti-polio campaign.

The anti-polio campaign suffered a blow earlier this month when a Taliban ban on polio vaccinations put 240,000 children at risk in North and South Waziristan. Following the unsuccessful inoculation campaign, a series of statements by Pakistani officials have chosen to declare that the prime fault for this loss is the US, who used the polio campaign’s face and a Pakistani surgeon as tools to assist their covert operation in Pakistan, discrediting health promotion activities in the country.

Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United States Sherry Rehman also expressed great concern about the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)’s use of Pakistani doctor Shakeel Afridi to help find bin Laden. She said his actions had endangered the lives of health workers in Pakistan, and put thousands of children at risk of contracting the polio virus.

“Afridi’s actions have seriously jeopardised Pakistan’s efforts to fight diseases, particularly polio among children,” said Rehman when quizzed by US senators about Dr Shakeel Afridi’s imprisonment. Rehman went on to add that fears had crept in amongst tribal elders that the polio campaign might again be used to covertly trace and eliminate Taliban leaders.

Special Assistant to the Prime Minister and National Focal Person on Polio Eradication Shahnaz Wazir Ali also endorsed Rehman’s statement, saying the US was directly responsible for problems that were hindering the vaccination drive in the country.

“It was criminal and condemnable on part of the CIA which is part of the US administration, using a health immunisation move for a secret spy operation without thinking about the consequences that are going to be faced by Pakistani children,” Wazir said.

Wazir also criticised US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, who titled the fake campaign run by Dr Afridi, since blood sampling and DNA were not a part of the polio immunisation campaign.

“I am unable to understand how Mr Panetta could do this without having appropriate information regarding a health move … and even if he had used the title of some other health drive, it would be equally deplorable. He (Panetta) has no idea what this mistake has brought to the Pakistani children,” said Wazir.

Official figures released by the health department revealed that almost 350,000 children missed the inoculation campaign held this month, specifically in North, South Waziristan and Khyber Agency where polio teams were given a clear message to stay out.

Be that as it may, polio teams drew up a strategy which entailed fire-walling the tribal agencies with transit teams at the entry and exit points to administer polio drops to all children entering and exiting the areas, which significantly dropped the number of children at risk to 150,000. But officials are still not confident in drawing down the polio virus in an expeditious manner from the region.

“The immunisation campaign was postponed in North and South Waziristan and Bara of Khyber agency but later through permanent counters dedicated to 24-hour polio vaccination service at points of entry to the tribal region, we were able to get the figure down,” said Mazhar Nisar, an official at the Prime Minister’s Secretariat.

Earlier, local Taliban and warlord Hafiz Gul Bahadur banned polio vaccinations in the northwestern tribal region of Waziristan to protest against US drone attacks. Subsequently, Mullah Nazir of South Waziristan and tribal elders followed suit on June 26.

The Taliban leadership believes that drone strikes were killing and psychologically affecting more children than polio. Only 14 new polio cases surfaced last year in North Waziristan, while US drone strikes killed over 250 people.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 30th, 2012.