Sajida Bibi knocks on each door in Killi Shakar Khan Quetta to ask if there are children below 5 in the house. With a gesture of compliance she enters the house. She squeezes the cheeks of a child, presses the slender plastic bottle, drops three dots of anti-poliomyelitis vaccine and marks the vaccine with a marker on the little finger and moves on to the next one.
While she walks house after house vaccinating hundreds of children in a day, she is accompanied by two other shadows besides her own. Two constables of Balochistan Police follow her holding their AK-47s with the safety catch lowered and all set to cock and fire.
This is Pakistan’s fight against polio. The country is one of only three nations after Afghanistan and Nigeria with polio virus still endemic on their soil. Anti polio campaign started in 1993 in Pakistan under the program of National Immunization Days (NIDs) and has been going on since then.
The addition of armed guards in the campaign however is a relatively recent development. Targeted attacks on the field workers have hampered the process of immunization and have made it an unsafe job. Some religious militant groups have targeted anti polio workers seeing them as cover of espionage. According to media reports more than 60 people have lost their lives in the anti polio campaign in Pakistan since 2012.
“I feel afraid even in the presence of policemen around me” Sajida Bibi told this scribe saying that she and her colleagues had no intention of harming anyone nor did they want to be part of a conflict. “We are ordinary people trying to support our families with the little amount we get through this campaign,” she said.
Hundreds of volunteers like Sajida take part in the polio eradication campaign across Balochistan through vaccinating children under five years of age. The Provincial Coordinator of the Expanded Program on Immunization Dr. Ishaq Panezai said that volunteers make the bulk of vaccinators in the province. “We train the volunteers before each campaign and officials accompany them in the field to monitor their work,” Dr. Panezai said.
Last year 25 cases of polio were reported from Balochistan the highest in last three years. Sources from the provincial health department say that most of the cases are reported from the areas where people had been reluctant to vaccinate their children.
Asad Khan an official of health department accompanying a polio team on Samungli Road said “We face problems in vaccinating every child because some people do not cooperate with us thinking that the vaccine causes infertility and that we are promoting a foreign cause.”
A nationwide awareness campaign in support of anti polio vaccination has been viral on television channels. Short advertisements featuring messages of notable scholars ask parents to have their children vaccinated. At the same time some regions local imams rouse hostility against anti polio campaign.
With only 3 months into 2015 more than 20 cases of polio infection have surfaced. 3 of the cases were reported from Balochistan’s Loralai, Qilla Abdullah and Quetta districts. The major cause cited by the government once again was refusal of parents when the team had been there to vaccinate their children.
Akbar Khan, name changed on request, a veteran in Pishin District said that people are risking lives of their children only because they have been told, it is forbidden in Islam to vaccinate their children. “Some people have been spreading misconceptions against vaccination of children,” Akbar said that the local religious scholars should clarify the matter to the people so that the disease could be eradicated.
As per End Polio Pakistan a group of polio eradication partners in Pakistan including World Health Organization (WHO), United Nations International Children Emergency Fund (UNICEF) and Government of Pakistan, the number of polio cases had dropped from the highest 20,000 a year before the campaign had started to only 58 in 2012.
But as the polio eradication partners were scrutinizing the situation to prepare for declaring Pakistan a polio free country the number of polio cases increased to 93 in 2013. In the following year of 2014 the number jumped to a shocking 306.
Independent Monitoring Board criticized Government of Pakistan’s stance in its report and suggested travel restrictions on the country. The report cited that Pakistan had not done enough to fight the virus and had completely failed to keep its promise of eradicating polio in the country by December 2014.
While militancy and refusal families are cited as major impediments in the fight against polio, government’s lack of seriousness and competence cannot be ignored. Adequate planning and realistic awareness movements could prove more helpful in mobilizing support for anti polio campaign in the country.
Published in The Balochistan Point on May 1, 2015