Last month, nine health workers were shot dead as they went from house to house to administer polio vaccine to children in Pakistan. Then, on 1 January, six Pakistani aid workers and a doctor were killed.
The attacks, which were condemned as “senseless and inexcusable” by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, forced the UN to suspend its vaccination campaign.
Eradication in jeopardy
In June 2012, the Taliban announced that it would ‘ban’ polio vaccinations for 160,000 children in tribal regions of Pakistan. This was reported to be in retaliation for US drone strikes in the region.
Prior to the recent attacks on health workers, cautious optimism had been building that the battle against polio could be won. The most recent target of wiping out the disease by 2012 had looked shaky for some time but progress was being made.
Cooperation between international government agencies, charities and philanthropists has helped to rid much of the world of polio through unprecedented funding and deployment of cutting-edge technology.
Now though, the already-complex problem of wiping out the disease in some of the most challenging and hard-to-reach corners of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria, is facing new obstacles.
Polio and politics
This is not the first time that polio has been caught up in political controversy. The US Central Intelligence Agency drew criticism from several quarters – including the Deans of the top US schools of public health – for using an immunisation drive to collect DNA samples from the compound where it suspected Osama Bin Laden was hiding.
This added to the backlash against vaccination campaigns in Pakistan, allowing opponents to frame the global eradication effort as a Western initiative – or even as a plot against Muslim populations.
The latter conspiracy theory had flourished in the past, temporarily derailing eradication efforts in parts of Nigeria. International agencies launched wide-scale community outreach and trust-building efforts with religious and political leaders whose support was crucial to the progress seen in recent years.
Now, polio eradication experts at the UN and WHO, as well as the Gates Foundation and Rotary Club, are faced with a new challenge. To eradicate polio, aid workers will have to be confident in their own security and parents in polio-endemic regions will have to trust the vaccine and those who administer it. Achieving this will require the support of stakeholders who are effectively at war.
Can all sides put polio before politics?
Watch: Dr Seth Berkely, GAVI Alliance CEO, on the task ahead