Attacks against health workers in Pakistan are deterring the fight against polio. Still, the government and NGOs are determined to carry on. The UN wants to wipe polio off the face of the Earth by 2015.
"Some groups believe that getting sick is alone God’s decision – and man shouldn’t mess with it," Thomas Schulz, a virologist at Hanover Medical School, told Deutsche Welle.
The Taliban, it seems, are one such group. In the last month alone, 16 health workers, who were on a door-to-door campaign to immunize children against polio, have been killed in Pakistan. While so far no group has claimed responsibility for the attacks, many are convinced that the Taliban carried out the attacks.
Last year, the Islamist militants, that many Western countries consider a terrorist organisation, said that it would block the immunization process until the US halted its drone attack on prominent Taliban leaders. The Taliban’s hostility against immunization programmes deepened after it emerged that the CIA – with the help of a Pakistani doctor – had used a vaccination programme to spy on Al-Qaeda leader Osama in Laden.
The attacks come with a high price for health in Pakistan: "We are so close to eradicating polio and there is no reason we shouldn't be able to do it, except for these security and ideology issues," Patrick McCormick, a UNICEF spokesperson in Geneva, told DW. "It's a massive tragedy for the children and these courageous health workers."
Race to eradicate polio
Poliomyelitis, more commonly known as polio, is a highly-contagious viral disease. It spreads quickly via the fecal-oral route: inadequate sanitation, contaminated food, even houseflies spread the disease.
In about three percent of infections, the virus can lead to permanent paralysis.
The only way to eradicate polio completely is to vaccinate an entire population. Today, only three countries still have polio outbreaks: Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria.
For the immunization to work properly, a child needs three consecutive vaccinations.
Can polio still be eradicated?
However, immunization campaigns in Pakistan have now been interrupted. It is unclear how many children received follow-up or even initial oral vaccinations.
In recent years, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), a coalition of national governments and NGOs supported by the UN, has seen considerable success. Last year, India was declared polio-free. The UN's goal is to wipe polio off the face of the Earth by 2015.
"We cannot let these attacks distract us from our task, giving the children in Pakistan the same protection we have given children elsewhere in the world," Sona Bari, spokesperson for polio eradication at the World Health Organization (WHO), told DW.
"This is a historic chance to eradicate a disease. We need to stand by the people of Pakistan and not walk away," she added.
Field workers pulled out
A strong health infrastructure with a supportive government is an important factor in fighting polio.
Sabine Diedrich, Director of the National Reference Centre for Poliomyelitis and Enteroviruses at Germany's Robert Koch Institute, believes that India is a good example. The country had the most cases of polio, before it was declared free of it in 2012.
"Eradication is only possible with good organization and logistics," Diedrich told DW.
The recent attacks have had a negative effect on the immunization logistics in Pakistan. While the vaccination campaign has not been called off completely, both UNICEF and the WHO have pulled out their field staff for now.
"It's a very volatile situation, and we don't know when we will get to the kids we missed,” Bari said, adding that more children would be paralysed by the virus as a result.
Last year, five cases of polio were recorded in Chad, which shares a border with Nigeria, according to the GPEI: The re-emergence and spread of polio is a real threat, if national campaigns are unable to eradicate polio.