In yet another attack on a polio vaccination team in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, two police officers guarding the team on duty lost their lives. Unidentified assailants shot and killed them at Kot Azam in the Tank district. The ongoing campaign to eradicate polio appears to be in peril with more likely refusals resulting in an incomplete target achievement for vaccination. This attack and loss of lives once again calls for a review of security arrangements for polio teams. This year has been devastating for the polio campaign; in April, the country reported the first case of polio in 15 months, and then 14 more cases have surfaced in the country. All these cases emerge in one tiny area of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. In urban areas the situation is better but in rural areas of districts such as Bannu, D I Khan, Karak, Tank, and Waziristan the number of refusals are high and many villages in these areas have seen multiple attacks on polio teams.
Federal Minister for Religious Affairs Maulana Abdul Shakoor has warned that people of the erstwhile tribal areas would boycott the polio vaccination campaign if the government failed to restore peace in those areas. This statement from a sitting federal minister is disappointing and irresponsible to say the least. The anti-polio campaign requires a whole-hearted support from all quarters, most of all government ministers. Any talk of a boycott of the campaign is tantamount to expressing a lack of confidence in the government the minister himself is part of. Since the minister belongs to the JUI-F, it also shows a lack of understanding on the part of our religious leadership of the significance and urgency of the campaign. Of course, restoring peace is the government’s responsibility but linking this with the polio campaign is ill advised and ill-timed. Since Pakistan is sliding rapidly on the polio front, the KP government needs to devise a strategy for awareness raising.
Whenever such attacks take place, state officials condemn them and make the usual promises of ‘dealing with’ perpetrators. But the fact is that our police teams have rendered great sacrifices in providing security to polio campaigns. Pakistan’s police who have to man the checkposts, accompany polio workers and guard politicians, deserve better. As representatives of the security state, the police are often targeted themselves. We as a nation have been so inured to police casualties in attacks that we seldom stop to think of the physiological toll it must be taking on the force, most of whom are barely earning a subsistence-level income. It is for them, and more so of course for the country’s children, that the fight against polio just has to be won. In this, we have no choice. For Pakistan to officially be declared a polio-free country, it would need to go three consecutive years without a single case of polio. Despite all the progress that has been made, we are still far away from reaching that number. The speed with which polio spreads means that unless every child is vaccinated the following year will have more confirmed cases than the one preceding it. By failing to contain polio we are only destroying our children’s futures.