Resumption of anti-Polio campaign in SWA after 30 months

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DERAISMAIL KHAN: After a long hiatus of 30 months, the anti-polio vaccination program resumed in South Waziristan Agency in November amidst fears for the security of health workers involved in the campaign.

“I feel insecure but happy to be involved in polio vaccination program to help eradicate the disease from Pakistan, not only to save my countrymen but also rest of the world from the crippling disease,” said Zarin, a vaccinator who spoke to News Lens Pakistan with the request that his real name not be used.

Zarin, 32, hails from South Waziristan where the polio vaccination campaign was banned by Mullah Nazir, a militant commander, in 2012. He was one of the 400 vaccinators tasked to vaccinate more than 75,000 children in the South Waziristan under the campaign.

The anti-polio vaccination program in Pakistan suffered a huge setback in the wake of Osama Bin Laden’s killing in Pakistan following a US military operation in May 2011. According to media reports, the CIA used a fake vaccination campaign to gather intelligence about the al-Qaeda leader. Militant groups were outraged when the news of program emerged and since then, attacks on polio workers have spiraled in Pakistan, a country where polio is still endemic. As of November this year, polio cases recorded in Pakistan had reached 265for the year – a 14-year high and more than double the total for the whole of 2013.

While the campaign in SWA ended without violence, attackers struck in Balochistan province, killing four polio vaccinators including three women on November 26, the day the campaign was resumed in SWA. Since July 2012, more than 65 people have been killed in attacks on polio vaccination teams in Pakistan according to UNICEF, including health workers and policemen that provide them security.

Commander Mullah Nazir, who was killed in a US drone strike on January 2, 2013, said in a pamphlet distributed in 2012:“In the garb of polio vaccination campaign the infidels are running spying network. No foreign funded vaccination drives are allowed until US drones are stopped.”

During the 30-month ban on polio vaccination in South Waziristan, 18 cases of polio have been reported in the agency. Seven cases were reported in the administrative unit of Wana while 11 children were tested positive in Bermal, both areas under the sway of Commander Mullah Nazir Group. Two another cases were reported in Ladah subdivision that does not fall under Mullah Nazir’s influence.

The political administration in South Waziristan used local tribal elders to persuade militant factions opposed to polio vaccination campaign in the area to allow them. “We have a peace agreement since 2007 with the Ahmedzai Wazir tribe, a dominant tribe in SWA, and the agreement allows the government to carry out polio campaign and development schemes in the area,” said Islam Zeb, Political Agent, South Waziristan Agency. “The administration will take action against those who put hurdles in the way of vaccination campaigns.”

A 120-member Ahmedzai Wazir jirga assured the political administration of their full support for safe and secure vaccination drive before the campaign was resumed in the agency.

Assistant Political Agent Wana Mehboob Khan told News Lens, “We started the campaign when the local tribal elders took responsibility for the security of the workers.” However, despite assurance of tribal elders, the levies (tribal security force) was assigned to protect the workers.

Additionally, the paramilitary Frontier Corps supported the political administration in hard areas where the security situation was not satisfactory. “There were 201 mobile vaccination teams on the ground,” said Mahboob Khan. He said that eight transit points and eight fixed points were established where children were vaccinated.

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