ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — In 1979, polio was eradicated in the U.S., and many other nations followed suit. Only three countries in the world still experience endemic polio—Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pakistan had been on its way to joining the world’s polio-free club in 2012, only having 58 infections. However, the Taliban’s vaccination bans and deadly attacks on fieldworkers caused the caseload to swell to 93 in 2013.
“It’s a scary number. Children in North Waziristan have been trapped for three and a half years without a drop of polio vaccine, and that’s what’s causing this,” said Aziz Memon, Pakistani chairman of Rotary International’s polio eradication campaign, which has vaccinated 2 billion children in 122 countries since its launch in 1985. Rotary International has contributed to the global polio infection rate’s drastic plummet from 350,000 in 1988 to just 416 in 2013.
In 2012, the Taliban vehemently attacked polio immunization upon discovering that a fake hepatitis vaccination campaign by the CIA had been used to gather DNA from the supposed hideout of Osama bin Laden. Since then, militant groups have considered vaccination campaigns to be guises for Western plots to sterilize Muslim children and gather intelligence. In response, the groups have killed over 60 polio workers.
“It is against Islam and our traditions. These foreign nongovernmental organizations can easily use polio as cover for spying,” said a spokesman for the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, a group of tribal area-based militant groups.
Whereas front-line health workers in other countries are a welcomed sight, they are targets to kill in Pakistan. Vaccinators face violent opposition and have even been murdered in their homes during the night.
Fatima Noor is a vaccinator of twenty years, among 100,000 Lady Health Workers in Pakistan, who delivers basic health services to children that live in slums and remote rural areas. She walks door-to-door with her son during polio drives, distributing permanent paralysis-preventing drops to children.
However, since the Taliban began their offensive against health workers, Noor’s methods have changed. Now, she tries to hide her work. The blue ice chest that contains the vaccine is cloaked, small enough to be hidden inside a shopping bag that is carried by her son. She asks children on the street to go check if the coast is clear before she does her work, covered in a burqa.
Though Noor has been with the organization for two decades and earns a monthly $70, many other vaccinators are hired on a daily basis during countrywide polio immunization drives. The Lady Health Workers earn the low amount of just $2.50 a day, an amount so small that even in the context of Pakistan, they are called volunteers.
When Noor and her team perform their work, they are constantly on edge. When they go into apartment buildings, they keep one vaccinator outside to stand watch. If they hear anything that sounds like gunfire, they hide. Occasionally, they’re given a police escort.
“When we come out of a building, we have to be careful. Sometimes we stop for a while to see if anyone was watching us,” said Noor.
Many times, especially after news of another vaccinator’s murder, Noor’s husband pleads with her to stop her work and stay home.
Part of the battle is breaking down the suspicious view of vaccines, particularly in poor slums. There, many parents believe that vaccination campaigns are Western schemes to sterilize Muslim children or even give them AIDS. Additionally, the Taliban in Pakistan threatens to kill parents who allow their children to be immunized. As a result, polio cases in Taliban-controlled regions have surged in number.
In just two areas of the polio vaccine ban, North Waziristan and South Waziristan, more than 50 children have already been paralyzed this year.
However, despite the bans and violence, there is a sense of achievement and hope that keeps vaccinators like Noor braving the obstacles. A recent Harvard poll has found that 95 percent of parents who have had a vaccinator visit their home did allow their child to be vaccinated.
“These are our children, and it’s obvious we will not let them be disabled,” said Noor.
– Annie Jung