Violence, fear and suspicion imperil Pakistan’s war on polio

December 23, 2012

(A female polio worker gives polio vaccine drops to a child in Lahore December 20, 2012. REUTERS/Mohsin Raza)

Pakistani health worker Bushra Bibi spent eight years trekking to remote villages, carefully dripping polio vaccine into toddlers’ pursed mouths to protect them from the crippling disease.

Now the 35-year-old mother is too scared to go to work after masked men on motorbikes gunned down nine of her fellow health workers in a string of attacks this week.

“I have seen so much pain in the eyes of mothers whose children have been infected. So I have never seen this as just a job. It is my passion,” she said. “But I also have a family to look after … Things have never been this bad.”

After the deaths, the United Nations put its workers on lockdown. Immunizations by the Pakistani government continued in parts of the country. But the violence raised fresh questions over stability in the South Asian nation.

Pakistan’s Taliban insurgency, convinced that the anti-polio drive is just another Western plot against Muslims, has long threatened action against anyone taking part in it.

The militant group’s hostility deepened after it emerged that the CIA – with the help of a Pakistani doctor – had used a vaccination campaign to spy on Osama bin Laden’s compound before he was killed by U.S. special forces in a Pakistan town last year.

Critics say the attacks on the health workers are a prime example of the government’s failure to formulate a decisive policy on tackling militancy, despite pressure from key ally the United States, the source of billions of dollars in aid.

For years, authorities were aware that Taliban commanders had broadcast claims that the vaccination drive was actually a plot to sterilize Muslims.

That may seem absurd to the West, but in Pakistan such assertions are plausible to some. Years of secrecy during military dictatorships, frequent political upheaval during civilian rule and a poor public education system mean conspiracy theories run wild.

Read the full story by Mehreen Zahra-Malik here.
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