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Taliban militants kill doctor working to eradicate polio

BMJ 2016; 354 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.i4967 (Published 19 September 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;354:i4967
  1. Ashfaq Yusufzai
  1. Peshawar

Taliban militants have shot dead a senior doctor working on north west Pakistan’s polio eradication campaign as part of their protest against vaccination.

Zakaullah Khan had led the Union Council Polio Eradication Committee in Peshawar for the last 10 years.

Pakistan’s health minister, Shahram Khan, told The BMJ that Khan had continued with his work despite threats from militants opposed to the vaccine.

“Militants have killed 78 polio workers, including three senior doctors, and have wounded 85 others to thwart vaccination,” he said. However, he added, “We are determined to reach 35 million children in every campaign and do away with this childhood disease.”

Ehsanullah Ihsan, a spokesperson for a Pakistani faction of the Taliban, claimed responsibility for the attack on Khan and warned people to stay away from polio vaccination.

“It is a ploy used by the US to render recipients impotent and infertile and reduce the population of Muslims,” he said in a statement, which added that vaccination was not allowed under Islam.

Twenty cases of polio were reported in the Swat district in 2009 after the outlawed militant group Tehreek Taliban Pakistan (TTP) had banned vaccination the previous year. The army ousted the militants in 2010 and vaccination has since been widely adopted, with no further cases of polio.1

The Taliban banned vaccination in early 2012 after a Pakistan physician, Shakil Afridi, was arrested for helping the US to obtain DNA from the Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden during a fake hepatitis vaccination campaign in Abbottabad city.2

The Taliban argued that Afridi had spied on Bin Laden under the cover of the vaccination programme. They banned oral polio vaccination in North Waziristan in June 2012 and 179 confirmed cases of polio were reported in 2013. The number of cases fell to 16 in 2016, after a military operation cleared militants from the area and soldiers guarded health workers as they delivered a door-to-door vaccination campaign. Only two cases of polio have been reported so far this year.

The number of cases in the whole of Pakistan has decreased to 16 this year, compared with 58 in 2015.

Pakistan and Afghanistan are the two remaining countries in the world where polio is endemic and have faced daunting challenges to ensure the vaccination of all children under five. Eight cases of polio have been reported in Afghanistan so far this year, all from areas controlled by the Taliban.3

Maulana Samiul Haq, a religious leader who supports polio vaccination, said that all Muslim parents were required to vaccinate their children and protect them against disabilities. “It is the religious responsibility of the faithful to administer oral polio vaccine to children and help them grow healthy,” he said.

Samiul Haq attended a meeting of the Islamic Advisory Group for Polio Eradication in July this year, where the group condemned the Taliban for hampering vaccination.

The federal health minister, Saira Afzal Tarar, said that Pakistan had enlisted the support of religious leaders to pave the way for vaccination in areas of the country controlled by militants.

References

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