Attack during polio vaccination drive raises concern in Pakistan

An explosive attack during a polio vaccination drive in northwestern Pakistan claimed the lives of five police officers, highlighting the security threats in public health efforts in some regions.

During a polio vaccination drive in northwestern Pakistan, an explosive device was targeted at a police vehicle, claiming the lives of at least five officers and leaving nearly two dozen wounded. The blast occurred early morning in Bajaur, a tribal district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, aligning with the country’s ongoing polio vaccination campaign.

Bilal Faizi, spokesperson for the provincial rescue services, revealed that the explosion took place as the police team set out for the vaccination drive. Prompt action saw the injured swiftly transported to local hospitals in Bajaur, with critically wounded individuals transferred to the provincial capital, Peshawar, situated approximately 133 km south of Bajaur. As of now, five individuals remain in critical condition.

Although no group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, the Pakistan Taliban, known as TTP, has targeted polio vaccination workers and security personnel in recent years. Resistance to polio immunization heightened after the CIA organized a fake vaccination drive in 2011 to locate Osama bin Laden, undermining trust in vaccination efforts. Additionally, misinformation spread by religious leaders in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region falsely asserted that the vaccine contained forbidden elements in Islam.

Pakistan and Afghanistan stand as the only two countries yet to be declared free of the wild poliovirus type 1 (WPV-1) disease. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative mandates a country to showcase the absence of WPV-1 transmission for at least three consecutive years to attain the status of being “free of polio.” Despite challenges, Pakistan exhibited progress, reporting six polio cases in 2023, marking an improvement from the 20 cases reported in 2022.

This attack on the polio vaccination team occurs amidst a surge in violent incidents across Pakistan. In 2023, over 600 violent attacks transpired in the country, signifying a 70% increase from the previous year and resulting in the tragic deaths of more than 950 people, according to data compiled by the Pakistan Institute of Conflict and Security Studies, an Islamabad-based research organization.

The incident underscores the formidable challenges confronting public health efforts, with security concerns emerging as a significant threat to essential vaccination campaigns in the region. There is a critical need for concerted efforts to address both health and security issues to ensure the success of vital public health campaigns in these areas.