OpEd: Give Pakistan’s polio vaccine workers a Nobel Peace Prize

A Pakistani health worker gives polio vaccine to a child at a neighborhood of Lahore, Pakistan, in 2015. (Credit: AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary)

Pakistan is one of the last places where polio remains active. The number of cases in the first half of 2015 fell by 70 percent, thanks to vaccinations and military advances in the north. A group of brave Pakistani health workers and volunteers continue to work to eradicate polio in the face of assassinations and continued attacks.

These workers are heroes who deserve one of the world’s highest honors – the Nobel Peace Prize.

With today’s announcement, it is not to be.

The Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet was awarded the prize earlier today for its efforts in building democracy in the country following Arab Spring. The four organizations were commended for bridging differences across ideals and sectors to ensure religious and political rights were extended to all Tunisians. The announcement makes it clear that the collective work of the quartet is being recognized, not the individual organizations.

I do not want to quibble with past winners (I’m looking at you Obama and U.N. peacekeepers). The majority deserve the honor, and there are many other deserving people have been overlooked – including Jonas Salk, the scientist who discovered the polio vaccine.

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The 1952 polio outbreak in the U.S. killed more than 3,000 people and disabled another 21,269. A half century later, polio is nearly gone. Soon it will join smallpox and rinderpest as the only diseases eradicated in human history.

But to succeed, vaccines must first reach children in the hardest-to-reach places in the world. Dedicated people in Pakistan are doing everything possible to vaccinate all children against polio. Dozens of these workers have lost their lives doing so.

Violent attacks on vaccine workers in late 2013 and into 2014 coincided with a sudden spike in cases across Pakistan. The spike – more than 300 cases last year – was the highest since 1999. Workers carried on, with the help of local police for security, as attacks continued and the Taliban banned vaccinations.

It would be understandable if these workers stayed home. It is far safer than risking death at the hands of the Taliban. Girls education advocate Malala Yousafzai has become an international hero, and Nobel Peace Prize winner, for her work following an assassination attempt by the Taliban. Alas there is no single face for the brave vaccination workers.

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Winning the Nobel is not just a matter of symbolic importance. The roughly $1 million that accompanies the prize can contribute to the vaccination effort. The Norwegian Nobel Committee can directly support these health workers.

Past winners have been cited for their work building peace in conflict states, making major humanitarian contributions and supporting human rights. There is precedent for groups or individuals winning for efforts to improve health. Doctors Without Borders won in 1999 “in recognition of the organization’s pioneering humanitarian work on several continents” and the International Campaign to Ban Landmines won in 1997 “for their work for the banning and clearing of anti-personnel mines.” Jean Henry Dunant shared the first peace prize in 1901 for founding the International Committee for the Red Cross and working on the Geneva Conventions.

This is all a lot of words to make a simple case. Pakistan’s polio vaccination workers are risking their lives to eradicate the virus from their country. That is the definition of heroic. Give them the Nobel Peace Prize.

Maybe next year.

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About Author

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.

  • Daviduke

    I can’t agree more. Good article.

  • Hats off to the vaccinators!