More attacks and polio cases harm Pakistan’s eradication effort

Pakistani security officials and relatives of tribal police assigned to guard polio workers who were killed in bomb blasts, pray next to the bodies during their funeral, near Peshawar.--AP Photo/Mohammad Sajjad

The year is young, but Pakistan has already endured a serious of setbacks in riding itself of polio. Two new cases were confirmed over the weekend in Peshwar. Meanwhile, a bomb attack on a polio vaccination team left 11 dead and 12 wounded.

The fight against polio has been far more literal than figurative. Since December 2012, more than 40 people working with or for polio vaccination in Pakistan have died. The increase in cases of polio from 58 in 2012 to 91 in 2013 is attributed to the poor vaccine coverage in the country. Attacks on vaccine workers has only made it harder to reach young people.

Police vehicles carrying officers meant to protect polio vaccine workers were struck by a bomb on Saturday. A second bomb went off a few minutes later, when a new convoy was sent in response to the first attack. A firefight ensued between the surviving officers and the unknown gunmen.

“An Attack on security personnel providing security to Polio Teams is an attack against Humanity,” said the Prime Minister’s Focal Person on Polio, Aysha Raza Farooq, in a Facebook post following the attacks. “Such coward attacks and conspiracies against our goal of Polio Free Pakistan will further strengthen our resolve to stamp this menace out of the country.”

The attack comes only two seeks after another bomb blast killed a police officer near a vaccination post. It came at the end of a campaign to vaccinate 600,000 children. A total of 24 cases of polio have been recorded in Pakistan this year, says Farooq’s office. The majority were found to be in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

Though the groups behind the attacks are not always known, the Taliban have voiced strong resistance to polio vaccinations. A ceasefire announced by the Taliban in the wake of the attack will provide a short respite, but it may not last for long.

“The senior leadership of the Taliban advises all subgroups to respect the Taliban’s call for a ceasefire and abide by it and completely refrain from all jihadi activities in this time period,” spokesman Shahidullah Shahid said in a statement, according to the Reuters .

Polio is on the brink of eradication, but it is still a problem in Pakistan, Nigeria and Afghanistan. Recently, a case of polio in the Afghan city of Kabul was recorded for the first time in thirteen years. It makes for the second case recorded in Afghanistan this year. The fourteen cases recorded last year put Pakistan’s neighbor in much better shape to be polio-free. However, the shared border poses a problem to Afghanistan’s progress.

The New York Times reported that most of the cases in Afghanistan are traced to Pakistan. A problem that spread further when cases in Egypt and Syria had forms of polio connected back to Pakistan. Such set-backs are cause for concern about the likelihood of eradicating polio in the next few years. Campaigners are demanding immediate action.

“The current situation in Pakistan is a powder keg that could ignite widespread polio transmission,” said Sir Liam Donaldson, Chair of the Polio Global Eradication Initiative, in a letter to WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chen at the end of February.

“The number of cases in this country is going in the wrong direction. The new government has been slow to grasp the fundamental seriousness of the situation.”

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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.