Pakistan poses global polio threat as violence against vaccination teams continues

BY Robert Pursell  January 23, 2014 at 11:19 AM EST
A Pakistani policeman stands guard as a health worker administers polio vaccine drops to a child during a door-to-door polio immunization campaign on the outskirts of Islamabad on January 22, 2014. Photo by Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images

A Pakistani policeman stands guard as a health worker administers polio vaccine drops to a child during a door-to-door polio immunization campaign on the outskirts of Islamabad on January 22, 2014. Photo by Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images

Following another string of deadly attacks on Polio vaccination teams by Taliban militant groups, the World Health Organization said Wednesday that Pakistan’s polio crisis threatens to spread across the globe.

The announcement came on the heels of one of the deadliest days of violence against vaccination workers. Three vaccination workers were killed Tuesday in the Qayyumabad area of Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi. Another four workers were killed and two teams of workers were feared kidnapped in other parts of the city. Six police officers assigned to protect workers were killed when a bomb near a police van exploded, also killing a young boy.

The violence has badly affected vaccination efforts. Of the three countries where polio is considered endemic, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria, more than half of the reported cases in 2013 were in Pakistan. WHO officials fear the Pakistani strains of polio will spread, with cases appearing in Syria.

Many Islamic clerics have long detested the vaccinations, believing they’re a ploy by the U.S. to sterilize Muslim countries.

Some Pakistani officials blame the United States. The CIA used a fake vaccination campaign as cover for its hunt for Osama bin Laden in northern Pakistan. As a result, officials claim Pakistani health workers across the country are now suspected of being spies and thus targeted by the militant groups.

Ehsanullah Ehsan, a spokesman for Pakistan’s largest Taliban group, said they oppose the vaccines because the U.S. was using them as an excuse to “spy on our holy fighters, many [of whom] have been martyred.”

In 2011 the CIA recruited a Pakistani doctor, Shakil Afridi, who ran a fake vaccination program in Abbottabad in an attempt to gain DNA samples from inhabitants of the house that was bin Laden’s suspected hiding place. When the program came to light, the already tense relationship between Islamic extremists and the vaccination teams dissolved and violence began to swallow much of the vaccination attempts.

“It is because of Shakil Afridi that militants have taken up this issue,” Zaheer ul Islam, a senior city administration official told the Wall Street Journal. “The whole polio-vaccination program has been sabotaged by this Shakil Afridi.”