Vaccination Campaigns Derailed by Violent Extremists as More Children Die in Disease Outbreaks

Extremist violence targeting Pakistani civilians continues. On January 1, 2013, gunmen killed seven teachers and health workers (six were women) in northwest Pakistan. According to The New York Times, the aid group, formed more than two decades ago, focused its projects on Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and South Waziristan. While a group has yet to claim responsibility for the attack, experts suspect either the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) or other violent religious extremists are to blame.

This attack follows a larger coordinated assault against aid workers on December 18 and 19, which left nine dead across the country. The Economist named the “Pakistani Taliban or allied groups” as the murderers, and underscored how the attack prompted a shut down of the UN’s polio vaccination campaign in Pakistan.

As the UN decision to cease operations demonstrates, targeted killings negatively impact health missions underway throughout the country. Afiya Shehrbano Zia, of The Guardian cites a study by the British Medical Journal, which details the effects of extremism on healthcare in Pakistan, stating:

“Not only did overall infrastructure of community health suffer drastically, but maternal mortality increased, and individual [lady health workers] LHWs were socially ostracized through a vilification campaign, while many left or stopped working due to direct threats to their lives.”

Certainly their fears are justified, as 15 health and aid workers were killed in Pakistan last year.

The targeted killings are but a piece of the bigger picture. Also troubling is the reported increase in measles cases in Pakistan. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) spokeswoman, Mayam Yunus, 306 children died from the disease in 2012, up from 64 in 2011. Though Yunus did not provide a reason for the increase, a health official from the Sindh province noted that most cases stemmed from areas where children were not vaccinated. Undoubtedly, continued, restricted access to these areas will only lead to further disease outbreaks.

In a PBS News Hour interview, Pamela Constable of The Washington Post underscored several important points regarding heightened violence, stating that almost all of the health groups are comprised of local workers, many of which are women subject to repressive tactics by militant groups who “do not think women should be out in public” period. When asked whether the government could protect aid workers, Constable replied that the lack of political will complicates its ability to do so, as the growing influence of the religious right keeps government officials from speaking out. The solution, she proposes, requires leadership from both the military and political establishment to “say this simply is not acceptable.”

A key aspect of this message should focus on debunking the notion that vaccines are a Western plot designed to harm Pakistanis or sterilize Muslims. Unfortunately, in a land rife with conspiracy theories and anti-Americanism, the arrest and 33-year sentence of a Pakistani doctor tied to the CIA’s hunt for bin Laden gave weight to extremists’ seeking to discredit health campaigns, as the doctor was “convicted of treason for using a vaccination drive to try to gather DNA sample from the Abbottabad compound where bin Laden was in hiding,” reported The Washington Post.

Constable is right to encourage Pakistani leadership on this issue in particular, but combating the broader conspiratorial atmosphere will benefit a wider range of issues and undermine violent extremism. This is a tall order, however, given that many of these radical groups are state-sponsored and serve the interests of Pakistan.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

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