Karachi: Another test awaits 45 year old Abida Perveen, a female health worker, as preparations for a new trial are being made. Abida has been participating in every Anti-Polio campaign since 1998 and this year’s campaign has been started on February 15. Despite threats, Abida refuses to be intimidated.

According to the Sindh Department of Health, six thousand female health workers in Karachi, the largest city of Pakistan, are involved in the anti-polio campaign and their per diem is set at 500 rupees.

Abida to News Lens Pakistan that preparations had already begun 20 days earlier as training sessions and meetings were held in health departments. In addition to vaccination techniques, they were also taught how to engage people in a friendly and amiable manner.

She is posted in Landhi, Karachi. The health workers arrived at the health centre on the day of the campaign. The teams departed from the health centre for their designated areas, which were allotted through careful planning. She says that two policemen are deployed alongside each team. Increased safety is provided for teams that are supposed to operate in areas with security concerns.

The male police officers do not accompany the health workers inside the house. Female officers occasionally do, but they too tend to wait outside unless someone refuses vaccination. In such case the police have to enter the house in order to assist the workers.

She said, “Vaccinators face a lot more resistance in Pashtun populated areas due to religious influence and that the workers risk their lives while trying to do their job.”

“Some people say it’s an American campaign. They resist because they think it is for family planning and bring religion into the context. They argue that they do not want to get their children vaccinated and that we are forcing them against their will,” added Abida.

Discussing the hardships faced by workers, she said, “The workers are jeered at and verbally harassed. In addition to the verbal abuse, they are sometimes assaulted with stones and the like. Once at Landhi, Sherpao Colony, a youth pointed a gun at us. We did not have any security accompanying us that day, hence we had to file a complaint and ask the rangers to assist us.”

According to a report by BBC, Pakistan was amongst the top four countries up till 2011, where the polio virus is yet to be eliminated. In 2012, Pakistan was amongst the top three countries where polio virus could still be found. Other countries include Nigeria and Afghanistan.

Abida said that it is hard to convince people who refuse polio vaccination on a religious basis. If they do not agree, the workers take medical officers with them, and if they still remain adamant, they take WHO staff.

Keeping in mind the fact that Pakistan and Afghanistan are the only two countries where polio virus can be found. World Health Organization has imposed travel restrictions on Pakistan to prevent the proliferation of the virus.

Abida said, “Come what may, I would never refuse participation in an anti-polio campaign. We are working for a noble cause, which is why we do not fear death. We are striving to eradicate this lethal so that the children of Pakistan do not have to suffer from it.” Telling about the reasons for her strong commitment, she said that her own son was afflicted by polio and passed away.

After the killing of the Al-Qaeda leader, Osama Bin Laden, the attacks on polio teams have increased. Seven volunteers have been killed in Karachi till date. Salma Jaffar, a female health worker was injured as well.

Salma says that everything was fine before the February 20, 2015 in the area of Qayyumabad. A polio team was attacked the very next day by two, armed men. Aneeta, a female worker, was shot in the cheek and male worker was shot in the chest. He died immediately.

Attacks on polio workers are being reported in Karachi almost every year since 2012.  Anti-polio campaigns had to be postponed several times due to a lack of security. After these attacks, the office of WHO in Karachi closed.

Salma told News Lens Pakistan that the anti-polio team was not accompanied by security that day. They requested for help from the police station but they were not provided security. After the attack they called the Chippa ambulance service, which arrived late; meanwhile the attackers came again and fired shots but left thinking everyone was dead.

Salma has been unable to completely recover since the attack so the doctors advised her to get surgery. According to Salma, she has spent Rs.500, 000 on her treatment and had incurred some debt. She cannot work due to her ailment and has four children to take care of. Her husband died six years ago.

She said that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called her for a meeting but she could not make it as he had to leave for somewhere else. He never got back to her. An amount of Rs.100, 000 was given by the Edhi Foundation and Rs.200, 000 were given by Chief Minister Sindh Qaim Ali Shah. But aid promised by the PM never arrived.

According to the Sindh Health Department, the only case of polio which has surfaced so far was on the 8th of January 2016 in Gadap Town, Karachi; as compared to the previous year’s 7 cases. In 2014, 306 cases came across from all over Pakistan, whereas in 2015 total 54 cases were registered in country. From which 12 were in Sindh and 7 of Karachi. At least 8 anti-polio campaigns held during the year in the city.

Muhammad Usman Chachar, Coordinator of Emergency Operation Centre for Polio, Sindh, said that the entire staff consists of six thousand teams, each team consists of two members and five teams have one in-charge. There are also representatives from UNICEF and WHO, working with the teams. The female health workers program is separate, but their services are acquired for the campaign due to lack of personnel.

Chachar said that no unpleasant incident took place last year, however impromptu threats and incidents do occur. He said, “Karachi is a big city and there is a certain amount of fear and reservation, so security is provided.” He added that the attacks on polio teams in Karachi occurred between 2012 and 2014.

During these 2 years, there were 9 casualties along with 8 people being injured in the attacks on anti-polio workers in different areas of Karachi. There has been no such incident so far.

According to him, instances of misdemeanor with female workers occur occasionally but the attempts are usually foiled. Such cases have been reported and actions have been taken against the perpetrators.

He said that there is a campaign every month and if a case of misdemeanor has been registered anywhere, an additional anti-polio campaign is carried out in the surrounding area. It should be clarified that the Ministry of Health initiated the anti-polio campaign in 1994, according to which vaccines should be given to children under the age of five.

In order to facilitate polio workers, Muhammad Usman explained that transport is provided for them. A special effort is made to campaign in the area where they live and they are allotted the same area to avoid hassle. If that is not possible, they are facilitated with transportation and security. He further added that injured volunteers are treated aptly and the government provides aid to the deceased volunteers’ families. Family members of the deceased may be employed (according to their expertise) in an effort to help them get back on their feet.


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