Taliban attitudes changing amid renewed polio vaccine worker attacks

Pakistan Polio
A Pakistani health worker, left gives a polio vaccine to a child, who was displaced with his family from Pakistan’s tribal areas due to fighting between the Taliban and the army.
AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen

Consecutive days of attacks on polio vaccination workers in Pakistan renewed concerns about its eradication. At least ten people were killed during attacks on Tuesday and Wednesday, this week. Despite that, Changing public attitudes by Taliban leaders may indicate a coming decrease in attacks.

Gunmen on motorcycles opened fire on a vaccination team in the city of Karachi, killing three members and injuring two. The following day, a police van carrying guards for vaccine workers was bombed in the northwest. At least seven people were killed as a result, including one child, said local police.

The police said that it will continue to provide security support for vaccine workers in the region. While neighboring India celebrated three years polio-free, Pakistan saw polio cases nearly double in 2013 to 91 cases. The northwest of Pakistan has struggled with reported cases of polio caused, in part, by the difficult circumstances facing vaccine campaigns. The Taliban have been a strong opponent to vaccines, citing fears of spying and harming children.

UNICEF estimates that 32 polio health workers have been killed across Pakistan since the middle of 2012.

While the Taliban has carried out may of the attacks over the past few years, attitudes are starting to change among some of its members and groups. Maulana Sami-ul-Haq, a Pakistani religious scholar considered to be the ‘Father of the Taliban,’ announced his support for vaccines, in October. AFP obtained a document authored by Haq in which he argues that vaccines can save the lives of children.

“Polio, measles, tetanus, tuberculosis…are fatal and dangerous diseases and the vaccines to save young children and pregnant women are effective and harmless. There is no reality in the doubts and suspicions being spread against these vaccines,” said Haq.

One Taliban group distanced itself from the Wednesday attack and went as far as to say that it does not oppose polio vaccines. The change of attitude could be a breakthrough for the vaccination effort.

“We have been holding detailed deliberations on the polio issue for some time and have been consulting trustworthy Muslim medical experts. Some of our doubts have been removed,” said senior Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) member Ehsanullah Ehsan to DAWN.

It is a departure from what Ehsan said the day before. In response to the attacks in Karachi, he cited concerns about the vaccines as reason to reject them.

“We are against these polio vaccinations,” said Ehsan to the Wall Street Journal. “It is against Islam and our traditions. These foreign nongovernmental organizations can easily use polio as cover for spying.”

Politician and former cricket star Imran Khan traveled to the north-western Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province in December to support a UN-backed polio vaccine campaign. He received a death threat for his remarks from a group linked to TTP.

The change, as indicated by Ehsan, is a deliberate one. DAWN reports that it is among other shifts within the TTP. Other members agree that the issue is not the vaccines, rather the potential of spying. Their skepticism stems from the CIA-backed fake vaccine scheme that was used to try to catch Osama bin Laden. The doctor who carried out the scheme, Shakil Afridi, is cited as reason for continued concerns.

The United States came under sharp criticism from global health experts and organizations after the details of the plot were revealed. The Pakistani government continues to support and carry out polio vaccine drives, despite attacks. Police units have been deployed for more than a year to provide protection after dozens of workers were killed in attacks between November 2012 and January 2013.

Polio is on the brink of eradication. It is endemic in only three countries: Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. The eradication effort suffered a difficult year in 2013 as cases were reported in Syria and along the border between Kenya and Somalia, in addition to cases in the three endemic countries. Vaccine coverage continues to be the most significant obstacle and is strongly linked to the persistence of polio in some parts of the world.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.