Why the Taliban hates polio vaccines

October 17, 2012

A polio vaccinator was gunned down in Pakistan's Baluchistan province Tuesday, highlighting tensions between local health officials' push to stem the region's polio epidemic and the attempts by Pakistani Taliban commanders to ban vaccinations.

A team of male and female vaccinators was administering polio drops to children door-to-door when unknown gunmen on a motorbike shot dead a male volunteer, a senior government official told AFP.

A health department worker applies a polio vaccine dose to a child in Peshawar, Pakistan on Oct. 16, 2012. (EPA/Arshad Arbab)

The shooting spooked aid workers, and the vaccination campaign has been temporarily suspended in the area.

Earlier this year, a key Pakistani Taliban commander halted a campaign to vaccinate 161,000 children, arguing that the health initiative could be used by Western forces as a cover for espionage. The New York Times reported:

The commander, Hafiz Gul Bahadur, said that the vaccinations would be banned until the Central Intelligence Agency stopped its drone campaign, which has been focused largely on North Waziristan.

The Taliban's fears also stem from the work of Shakil Afridi, a Pakistani doctor who administered polio vaccines but had also been working with the CIA for years and helped the United States root out Osama bin Laden, The Washington Post's Richard Leiby reported. Afridi was sentenced to 33 years in prison on treason charges in May.

In July, the World Health Organization estimated the polio vaccine ban could affect about 280,000 children living in tribal areas of northwest Pakistan. Polio is a contagious, viral illness that causes paralysis, difficulty breathing and sometimes death. In the United States, the last case of naturally occurring polio happened in 1979.

Pakistan is one of only three countries where polio remains endemic, along with Afghanistan and Nigeria, the AFP reported. There have been 30 confirmed cases of polio in Pakistan this year, 22 of them in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.

The situation has become so dire that Bruce Aylward, assistant director-general of polio at the World Health Organization said the government should try to assuage the Taliban's fears about the vaccination campaign.

"We need to address any underlying concerns the people may have about the operation," he told Al Jazeera. "We need to have their people doing the vaccinating, doing the planning, and making sure that they're done in a way that is acceptable to those communities."

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Max Fisher | October 17, 2012