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Shootings May Threaten Global Polio Eradication Effort

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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pakistan polio vaccine killings

Child receives oral polio vaccine; image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/USAID

The deaths this week of nine polio vaccine workers in Pakistan at the hands of gunmen indicate a threat not only to workers but also to the effort to eradicate the disease—locally and globally.

Earlier this year, the international push to eradicate the crippling—and sometimes deadly—childhood disease from its final holdouts (Pakistan, Nigeria and Afghanistan) was still in full force. Total worldwide cases had fallen to about 650 in 2011, and the incidence of the illness was down some 99 percent since the global launch of eradication efforts in 1988 by the World Health Assembly.

But in June, Pakistan’s Taliban announced that it was prohibiting polio vaccinations in its tribal areas, which would prevent 160,000 children from receiving the preventive dose. The Taliban leaders said the move was to protest U.S.-led drone strikes.

The health care workers killed this week—presumably by Taliban militants—were shot as they made community rounds to vaccinate children during a three-day nationwide drive.  The killings, which appear to have been coordinated, prompted the United Nations on Tuesday to remove its staff from the vaccination campaign and the Pakistani government to suspend the program in the Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces, the BBC reported. Other areas, such as the city of Lahore, dispatched police escorts to accompany vaccination workers. On December 19, the suspension was instituted throughout all of Pakistan, although some efforts continued.

Polio is caused by a virus that destroys motor neuron cells, often crippling victims for life. It was effectively eradicated from the U.S. in 1979, but as long as it is circulating somewhere on the globe, it still posses a threat. The oral vaccine is not perfect. It contains a live version of the virus and can occasionally give polio to a child receiving the vaccination. In the U.S. and many other developed countries, the vaccination is given as a shot that contains inactivated virus, which cannot cause the disease. The injections, however, are more difficult to distribute and administer than the oral drops.

The worker attacks were shocking in themselves but they also “deprive Pakistan’s most vulnerable populations—especially children—of basic life-saving health interventions,” spokespeople for the World Health Organization noted in a prepared statement. Pakistan still has the most infections of any country. Skepticism and wariness of the vaccination campaign—with some inhabitants claiming health workers are attempting to sterilize children or that the workers are U.S. spies—have been flowing in the region for years but have surged since 2011, when a doctor was recruited by the CIA to run a mock hepatitis vaccination campaign to gather intelligence about Osama Bin Laden’s whereabouts.

Most of the vaccine workers in Pakistan, including several of those killed, were young women, who were more easily able to gain access to households and speak with mothers. “The whole program is dependent on them,” Imtiaz Ali Shah told The New York Times. Shah is a vaccine coordinator in Peshawar, an area near Taliban tribal land where at least two of the victims were killed that is also known to be a reservoir of polio infection. Some 225,000 workers and volunteers had been helping to administer the vaccine in Pakistan, and just one pair of workers can administer vaccine to 150 to 200 children in a single day, the Times reported. The health workers can also bring other public health messages to often rural, remote populations. “Every encounter a vaccinator has with a mother delivers other messages about breastfeeding, hand-washing or encouragement to take kids to health centers for other immunizations,” Sarah Crowe, a spokesperson for UNICEF told the Times.

The tally of dead workers indeed seems to be greater than the number of children who will likely die from polio—which kills about 2 to 5 percent of those stricken—in Pakistan this year. But with a kibosh on vaccine rounds, other important public health messages will also go unspread.

Katherine Harmon Courage About the Author: Katherine Harmon Courage is a freelance writer and contributing editor for Scientific American. Her book Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea is out now from Penguin/Current. Follow on Twitter @KHCourage.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. frankblank 8:01 pm 12/20/2012

    Some have been saying the Taliban was worried that the American Gun Worshipers might usurp the title of the stupidest people in the world. But with just a few murders and a bunch more they can blame on the will of allah, they reaffirmed their claim to it.

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  2. 2. Allyn Woerpel 9:36 pm 12/20/2012

    my classmate’s mom makes $77 an hour on the internet. She has been fired from work for 8 months but last month her income was $12588 just working on the internet for a few hours. Go to this web site and read more….. BIT40.ℂOℳ

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  3. 3. willis sutliff 12:59 am 12/21/2012

    This is a huge setback in the effort to eliminate polio from the world. The effort by the partnership of Rotary International, The Gates Foundation, The UN: WHO and UNICEF, the US CDC and many Governments of the world is so close to success. At least 5 to 10 million children have been saved from paralysis and more are saved every year. If the effort is not successful in Pakistan polio may come back and again paralyze hundreds of thousands of children each year. A partnership must be formed with Muslin leaders to get the Taliban to let polio immunizations resume in Pakistan.

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  4. 4. oldvic 4:23 am 12/21/2012

    In the long run, stupidity and ignorance are self-defeating. It’s just a pity that, in the mean time, they end up harming innocents.

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  5. 5. dbtinc 8:16 am 12/21/2012

    Oh well as long as the rest of us stay away from places like Afghanistan, we will be okay. So, diseases play as much an active role in Darwinism as any other environmental pressure. Stupidity and ignorance – a dangerous combination.

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  6. 6. julianpenrod 12:42 pm 12/21/2012

    This criticizes the article and those who accept it without question, so it may not be printed or be removed, but, propaganda uses, if not depends, on shallowness of thought among those hearing it. The U.S. sold the idea that the Soviet Union would risk nuclear war, even though it wouilf contaminate them as well as us. They sold the dullards the lie that a ragtag group of dissidents would necessarily engage in something as destructive and guaranteed to bring down massive military reprisal as September 11. Now, they are saying that the Taliban would invite the epidemic decimation of the population that they use to maintain poitical strength! But, for that matter, where is the evidence of such dangerous presence of polio in Pakistan as is being suggested? If it was so bad, articles pushing to promote “vaccination” would display pictures of them. But they have no such proof of the need for the vaccine. They just order people to believe it and the shallow and dull obey without question. And, remember the unscrupulous and unethical use of a deceitful “vaccination” program supposedly to find bin Laden’s presence. Or, at least, that’s what was claimed. If they would lie about the purpose of the “vaccine”, what guarantee is there that what they claim the clandestine “real” reason for the program is true? Frankly, if a “doctor” could engage in something like that, how could any “doctor” or “scientist” ever be believed when they claim “vaccines” are “safe” or even work on the “diseases” they are claimed to cure? What proof is there that what they were peddling as “vaccine” wasn’t something else? Where even is the proof that “vaccines” in the U.S. are “safe’ as claimed and not intended for other purposes? Frankly and truly, what is the proof, beyond the word of those who stand to profit by the program and their shills ordering people to trust “vaccines”?
    Incidentally, notice the viciousness of frankblank. frankblank capitalizes Taliban and even the fictional American Gun Worshippers, which is not an organization, yet frankblank refuses to capitalize the name of Allah. Other vicious individuals write the name of God with a lowercase “g” and weasel around by onvoking that the word “god” is legitimate and “that’s what they were referring to”, but such a dodge is not possible here. The fact is, refusing to capitalize any name ascribed to God is an act of spite and hate, insisting that there is no God, because God doesn’t answer their whims when they have done absolutely nothing to deserve even modest requests, then, to feed their contempt, deliberately mis wiriting His name.

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  7. 7. bucketofsquid 4:40 pm 12/21/2012

    Once again the failure of SciAm to have a meaningful report abuse function subjects the reader to spam posts and delusional ranting. At the very least the blog author should occasionally swing by to remove the dreck.

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