Polio Vaccinators Face Deadly Risks In Pakistan

In regions where polio is endemic, anti-vaccination views are tied to politics.
A child gets polio drops during a vaccination campaign in Nepal. Adam Bjork, CDC

Here’s another twist on “vaccine safety.” Over the past year, Pakistani villagers have been shooting healthcare workers that came to give them the polio vaccine.

Foreign Policy has the exact numbers. Up to 22 workers may have been killed—one of the incidences was a roadside bomb, so it might have just happened to catch vaccinators—while 14 others have been bombed, taken for ransom, tortured, or otherwise injured. The violence likely stems from the Pakistani Taliban’s opposition to vaccination, Foreign Policy reports.

Taliban leaders have a variety of reasons they’re suspicious of the polio vaccine. They think vaccinators could be spies for the U.S. military–more on this later–or that they could be part of a plot to sterilize Muslims. Last year, Pakistani Taliban groups questioned why Americans fund both fatal drone strikes and life-saving vaccination programs. Leaders said they would ban vaccinators from reaching them until the U.S. stops using drone strikes.

One major setback to polio vaccination came when journalists began reporting that during the search for Osama bin Laden, one Pakistani doctor pretended he was giving townspeople the Hepatitis B vaccine. In reality, he took samples to DNA test, to search for bin Laden’s relatives. Although the polio vaccine couldn’t be used in this way because it’s given as oral drops, the Taliban has used the hepatitis example to call for opposition to polio vaccination, saying healthcare workers could be working for the U.S.’ C.I.A.

Pakistan is one of only three countries in the world where people still regularly contract polio. The others are Afghanistan and Nigeria. Yet experts worry that continued vaccination resistance in these places could bring about a resurgence of polio in countries where it’s been eradicated, as international travel could spread infections far beyond country borders. A dozen prominent U.S. public health researchers have repudiated the false hepatitis campaign. As a May opinion piece in Scientific American put it, “the operation that led to [bin Laden’s] death may yet kill hundreds of thousands more” from polio vaccine refusal.

The New York Times has a unique perspective, describing the towns where polio incidence is the highest and where some workers lost their lives. One doctor, a Muslim, took a journalist on a tour in April and talked about a fatwa placed upon him. In May, a gunman killed him and injured his one-year-old daughter.