December 2, 2023

Taliban stops polio eradication campaign in Pakistan

Bioethics is probably not high on the Taliban’s to-do list and it is making no exceptions for public health.

Bioethics is probably not high on the Taliban’s to-do list and it is making no exceptions for public health. A man working for a polio vaccination drive in Quetta, in the province of Balochistan, was killed this week by gunmen on a motorbike.

It is not known who was responsible. However, since July, a Taliban leader in North Waziristan, Hafiz Gul Bahadur, has banned polio vaccination teams.

This is a great setback to international efforts to eliminate polio, a disease which is endemic only in three countries, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. There have been 30 confirmed cases of polio in Pakistan this year, 22 of them in tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.

This is not sheer bloody-mindedness and anti-Western prejudice at work. From the Taliban’s point of view, polio campaigns have become enmeshed in the war. Shakil Afridi, the Pakistani doctor who helped to track down Osama bin Laden in Abbotabad for the CIA, used a polio campaign as his cover. Afterward, Western aid workers were bitterly critical of the CIA and predicted that militants would stop the polio vaccinations.

In a pamphlet distributed in June, the Taliban contended that it was a bizarre contradiction for Western benefactors to spend billions eradicating polio, while they were killing innocent civilians with drone strikes. “Polio infects one child in a million, but hundreds of Waziri women, children and elders have been killed in these strikes” says the pamphlet. Constant surveillance by the drones is also a torment for civilians, it says. “Each day the list of psychological patients increases in Waziristan, which is worse than Polio.”

The Taliban also fears that people distributing the vaccines could be spies working for the CIA or the Pakistani government. “There is a high possibility that the campaign be used for spying against the Mujahideen, an apt example for this is Dr.Shakil Afridi, therefore, there shall be a total ban on the anti-polio drive.”

Factors other than the war could be at work. Waziristan has had no electricity for 30 years and local elders also say that they will continue to ban polio vaccination until the Pakistani government provides a power network. “If our children die from the scorching heat and mosquito bites, so what if they die of polio?” said a local leader.  “We will continue the boycott until the government fulfils our demand. We are betrayed with false promises of the government and the officials are doing nothing in practical.” ~ Washington Post, Oct 17

Michael Cook
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