‘Climate of fear’ after polio killings

A leading figure in the battle to eradicate polio from Afghanistan and Pakistan has said there is a climate of “suspicion and fear” among health workers, following deadly attacks on vaccinators in Pakistan and Nigeria.

“The atmosphere in the field is one of suspicion and fear,” Dr Waqar Ajmal, Senior Program Officer for Pakistan and Afghanistan at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, told Philanthropy Age. “However, it has not weakened the bravery and commitment of those who are involved, including the leadership, and I’m not just talking about the government, but all of the political parties who condemned [the violence] and are the reason that people put their lives at stake and say, ‘I’m not going to be defeated by the designs of those who are evil’.”

In December, five female health workers vaccinating children against polio were shot dead in Karachi and Peshawar in a series of attacks blamed on Islamist militants. One victim was a 17-year-old schoolgirl volunteer. A sixth health worker, a man, was also reported murdered in Karachi.

Multilateral organisations, governments and NGOs have made a greater effort to reach out to religious leaders in the wake of the murders, in an effort to dispel vaccine myths among communities in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In both countries, Taliban insurgents have repeatedly denounced the anti-polio campaign as a western plot to sterilise Muslims to stop population growth.

“The problem is not as big as we think,” said Ajmal. “Now, most of the 1.5 per cent of children are in areas which are suffering from conflict, and there are political statements to be made: people use religion and suspicion as their tools to gain political leverage.

“The crimes have been committed for a number of reasons, but not in the name of religion,” he added. “They were political statements: to get recognised, and to halt the progress of the government. If a certain religious statement comes from a certain religious scholar, it has a tremendous impact. We are trying to utilise religious figures that are looked up to, as a means of countering the misperception and misinformation. We have always tried to do this, but it has become more large-scale after the killings.”