Pakistan must eradicate virus of extremism

Syed Fazl-e-Haider says the target killings of polio vaccine campaigners is unconscionable

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 January, 2013, 3:17am

Pakistan's hopes of becoming a polio-free nation are in peril after the suspension of an immunisation campaign in the wake of the recent extremist killings of vaccination workers in Karachi and Peshawar.

More than 3.5 million Pakistani children are now at risk after missing out on the vaccination shots.

Pakistan remains one of only three countries in the world, along with Nigeria and Afghanistan, where polio is still endemic. Most alarming is the fact that it is the only country in Asia with confirmed wild poliovirus type 3 transmissions. Last year, the polio virus reportedly spread from Pakistan to Xinjiang.

It is not possible for the country to defeat polio without defeating the Taliban, which does not hesitate to hit soft targets like polio workers to impose its radical agenda, even though targeting anti-polio workers means playing with the lives of hundreds of thousands of children in Pakistan.

The Islamist extremists have labelled the World Health Organisation's anti-polio drive an "infidel" campaign, and say it is a cover for espionage.

The Taliban actually see each polio worker as another Shakil Afridi, the Pakistani doctor who helped the US hunt down Osama bin Laden last year, using a hepatitis vaccination programme as a cover.

The extremists also claim that the vaccine contains pig fat and makes people infertile.

Actually, it is the Taliban that is infected with a deadly virus - extremism, which, like the polio virus, can spread across the world, putting global peace at risk.

The polio epidemics of the last century are a part of human history, but the devastation that humanity may suffer at the hands of the extremism virus is immeasurable.

The polio virus requires the right environmental conditions to flourish. Similarly, poverty, unemployment, backwardness and illiteracy provide favourable conditions for the mushrooming of the virus of extremism.

War-torn Afghanistan and Pakistan's northwestern tribal areas, which have the worst socio-economic conditions, serve as breeding places.

The US drone war has been counterproductive in combating "Talibanisation". The number of Taliban fighters has increased over the past seven years and the virus of extremism has spread from Pakistan's tribal areas bordering Afghanistan to the Pashtun-dominated slum areas of the port city of Karachi, where five immunisation volunteers were killed.

Only education will prove to be an effective vaccine against the virus of extremism. And the best way to launch this immunisation programme is by establishing high-profile academies, technical training institutes and universities in tribal areas.

Syed Fazl-e-Haider is a development analyst in Pakistan