Pakistan must do more to secure polio vaccine workers — NGOs

A polio vaccination drive in Balochistan, Pakistan. The number of polio aid workers killed this year has increased to 16, when two volunteers were killed by unnamed gunmen in the country's Swabi district. Photo by: Gates Foundation / CC BY-NC-ND

Pakistan’s anti-polio movement sustained more casualties on Sunday after two unnamed gunmen killed two polio volunteer vaccine workers working for the government in Swabi district, the latest in a spate of violence that saw 16 aid workers slain this year.

The aid workers were not flanked by police escorts when they were shot at close range while administering vaccines in the Kandaro Banda area of Pabbini village, according to local authorities.

While district police said the victims did not request for security, some leading figures in Pakistan’s anti-polio drive believe more could have been done by the government to prevent the violence.

“We have always been demanding that polio vaccine campaigns should get full security coverage from the government, and it is not enough that they offer a few police officers,” Aziz Memon, chair of the Pakistan PolioPlus Committee for the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, told Devex on Monday.

Memon noted that nonprofit groups in Pakistan have repeatedly raised the issue during meetings with the authorities, but have yet to see an adequate response.

Asked if the Pakistani government should do more to boost aid worker security in the South Asian country, he explained that it is the duty of the government, and not of donors, to protect vaccine workers at risk.

“I don’t believe donors will provide funding to improve the security of aid workers here since they are focused on financing polio vaccination campaigns and the purchase of vaccines,” he added.

Donors pledged in April $3.75 billion to eradicate polio globally by 2015, with a special focus on Pakistan.

Support With Working Solution CEOJaved Akhter, who saw seven of his 56 aid workers shot dead in January, told Devex on Monday that security support is not available for those working in rural areas like the Swabi district.

This leaves polio vaccine workers, he said, in danger of attack from religious fanatics linked to the Taliban who began opposing vaccination drives after CIA agents masqueraded as polio vaccine workers to intercept former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in 2011.

Akhter stressed that the much-needed vaccination program in Swabi is at a standstill because of the recent killings, and warned the program could close shop permanently in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region if the violence does not end soon.

Meanwhile, Memon said that GPEI’s “mission to eradicate polio will continue and will not be bogged down by these killings.”

Pakistan is one of only three countries in the world — along with Afghanistan and Nigeria are the others — where polio still thrives.

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  • Johannamorden profile

    Johanna Morden

    Johanna Morden is a community development worker by training and a global development journalist by profession. As a Devex staff writer based in Manila, she covers the Asian Development Bank as well as Asia-Pacific's aid community at large. Johanna has written for a variety of international publications, covering social issues, disasters, government, ICT, business and the law.