UN suspends anti-polio drive in Pakistan | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 19.12.2012
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UN suspends anti-polio drive in Pakistan

The UN has suspended its polio eradication campaign in Pakistan after two more health workers were killed and another critically injured this Wednesday. The Taliban oppose the campaign as "anti-Islamic."

On Wednesday (19.12.2012), a female health worker who was supervising the polio vaccinations, along with her driver, were killed in the northwestern Pakistani city of Charsadda.

"Three masked gunmen on a motorcycle opened fire on the health worker's car, killing the woman and her driver on the spot," senior police officer Zahir Shah told the media.

A volunteer health worker was shot in the head few hours earlier while administering the oral door-to-door vaccination in Peshawar, said the Pakistani police. Hilal Ahmed, who is in his early 20s, is said to be in a critical condition.

Earlier this week, five vaccination workers were killed by gunmen in the southern port city of Karachi, and another in Peshawar, which is the capital of the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province bordering Afghanistan.

The UN's World Health Organization (WHO) - which partnered with the Pakistani government in the anti-polio drive - said that the decision to suspend the campaign was made because of the "very precarious" security situation.

Elias Durry, the WHO's chief coordinator for the anti-polio program in Pakistan, told the news agency dpa, "until we know better about the security situation, we are asking our staff to work at home."

'Spying campaign'

Pakistani doctor Shakeel Afridi (Photo: Qazi Rauf/AP/dapd)

Human rights organizations are demanding a fair trial for Afridi

Vaccination problems have led to a rise in polio cases in Pakistan. Last year, Pakistan recorded 198 cases of the disease - the highest number in a decade. Polio is also endemic in neighboring Afghanistan.

No group has claimed responsibility for the attacks on anti-polio campaign workers, but in the past the Taliban have opposed anti-polio inoculations, and blocked the program in the restive tribal region of Waziristan earlier this year.

The Pakistani Taliban say that polio eradication campaigns are being used by the West as a cover for spying.

In July, Pakistani authorities postponed a similar campaign in Waziristan after Taliban leader Hafiz Gul Bahadur banned inoculations, claiming the drive was similar to a hepatitis vaccination program run by the imprisoned Pakistani doctor Shakeel Afridi.

Afridi allegedly helped the CIA find al Qaeda's former chief Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden was eventually killed by the US Special Forces at his Abbottabad hideout in May last year.

Earlier this year, a Pakistani court sentenced Afridi to 33 years in prison after charging him with treason.

Shahnaz Wazir Ali, an advisor to Pakistani Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf, told DW that the Afridi affair had made it difficult for the authorities to conduct this campaign.

"People think that agents like Dr. Shakeel Afridi work in polio immunization teams, and that might put their lives at risk," she said, adding that the anti-polio campaigns did not involve blood and DNA tests.

Ali told DW that the anti-polio campaign was not anti-Islam, as propagated by some groups, and merely reflected the need of the hour.

Rescue workers move the body of one of the polio vaccination workers to a mortuary after four female polio vaccination workers were killed in Karachi, Pakistan, 18 December 2012 (Photo: EPA/REHAN KHAN)

Rights activists have criticized the government for not providing security to health workers

Anti-modernity forces

Karachi-based journalist Nusrat Amin told DW that anti-progressive forces in countries such as Pakistan have often opposed campaigns that were aimed at improving people's lives.

"Successive governments have always succumbed to tribal pressures, so it doesn't surprise me if the government chose to postpone the drive," said Amin.

Wajahat Malik, an Islamabad-based social activist and filmmaker, told DW that since the Afridi incident, "the polio eradication campaign has lost its credibility in Pakistan." He added that Pakistan is rife with conspiracy theories.

Malik also said that the Pakistani state not only lacks power in North Waziristan, but that its presence in the whole of the tribal belt is nearly non-existent.

Domestic politics

But of late, the Taliban have extended their activities to other Pakistani cities - including Karachi, which is considered to be a stronghold for the liberal Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) party.

Malik Siraj Akbar, a Pakistan expert at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C., told DW that the Pakistani government has been ignoring and denying the increasing Talibanization of Karachi.

Supporters of Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), holding posters of their leader Altaf Hussain, chant slogans against terrorism (Photo: AP Photo/Athar Hussain)

The MQM is the only party in Pakistan that openly condemns the Taliban, say experts

"Such acts keep reminding us about the presence of hard-line Islamic groups that are capable of manifesting their power without being traced or punished," Akbar said.

Akbar was of the view that the MQM and other liberal parties in Karachi were not averse to Islamization, and offered a "narrow rejection of Talibanization based on ethnic politics."

"The MQM's response to Talibanization in Karachi is similar to Pakistan's response to the war on terror. Pakistan has not officially owned the war on terror. Pakistan is not ideologically convinced that this is its war," Akbar commented.

But many Pakistani experts believe that the MQM is the only political force in Karachi that can contain the Taliban's growing influence in southern Pakistan. They say that by targeting health workers in Karachi, the Taliban are also aiming to exert their political control over a "liberal" city.

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