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Pakistani health workers get unexpected help in polio fight
Ansar ul Islam defied the Lashkar-e-Islam militants by helping to ensure that thousands of children received vaccinations.
By Ashfaq Yusufzai
KHYBER AGENCY – The rivalry between Ansar ul Islam (AI) and Lashkar-e-Islam (LI) is so strong that enmity compels one to work in opposition to the other, some say. So strong that, in September, AI helped health workers administer polio vaccinations to children living in the Tirah area of Khyber Agency.
Pakistani-banned militant groups such as LI and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have spread false rumours against vaccination programmes, claiming that they are a Western plot to control Muslims, and they have called for a ban on vaccines, Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) health officials told Central Asia Online. Such efforts have left hundreds of thousands of Pakistani children vulnerable to polio and other crippling diseases over the past four years.
AI, on the other hand, supported the vaccination campaign by providing security for health workers as they went door to door in a bid to reach 60,000 children who had missed out on vaccines because of LI threats.
"We won’t allow anyone to play with children’s health to benefit their own vested interests," AI spokesman Izatullah told Central Asia Online. "We have started supporting polio vaccination to safeguard our future generation from being crippled."
Promising that AI, which is not outlawed, would promote the vaccination programme to safeguard Pakistani children from disease, he reminded people that, "It is the Islamic responsibility of the parents to allow health workers to administer drops to the children and protect them against ailments."
"The LI is a terrorist outfit that wants to cause physical harm to the children," he added.
"Though FATA has recorded only 14 cases of the country’s total of 38 this year, the kids were vulnerable to the crippling childhood ailment because of their non-vaccination," FATA health directorate immunisation officer Dr. Mushtaq Ali told Central Asia Online. "With AI’s assistance, we have been able to vaccinate 40,000 children in the militancy-stricken Bara area of Khyber Agency."
"The strategy has turned out to be a big success," he said, describing how scouts escorted vaccinators to the areas that were previously off-limits for them and provided security for door-to-door campaigns.
In North and South Waziristan, the TTP campaign against vaccinations left more than 300,000 children vulnerable to eight vaccine-preventable childhood ailments, including polio, Ali said.
The Taliban use their opposition to vaccines as a ploy to settle scores with the government, Dr. Mumtaz Gul of the Pakistan Paediatrics Association said.
"According to Islamic as well as international law, protection of children is mandatory for government, parents and other member of the society," Gul told Central Asia Online, urging the militants to lift their opposition to immunisation programmes.
"The use of children as a bargaining chip by the Taliban is ridiculous and against Islam, which instructs strict protection of children against diseases," he said.
Areas where the Taliban hold sway have reported higher rates of childhood disease. Swat, for example, which the Taliban ruled from 2007 to 2009, reported 20 polio cases in 2009, the highest number of cases in the country, Gul said.
Different approaches and strategies are being adopted to ensure that more children receive vaccines, FATA Social-Sector Secretary Dr. Aftab Akbar Durrani said, but AI’s co-operation has saved children and protected health care workers.
"The organisation’s support has sent a positive message about vaccination in the nearby Frontier Regions (FRs), where refusals have dropped in the recent campaign," he said.
Tirah resident Muhammad Rasool was waiting for his three children to receive vaccinations, but health workers stayed away because of Taliban reprisals.
"We are thankful to security forces and AI for their support in beginning the vaccination," he said, calling the move praiseworthy and a blessing for children.
Besides polio, children received vaccines for measles, diphtheria, hepatitis, influenza, pneumonia, meningitis and pertussis, Dr. Fawad Khan, FATA health director, said.
The National Development and Research Foundation (NRDF), with the help of the local religious scholars, played a significant role in prevailing upon AI to fulfil its Islamic and national responsibility by vaccinating children.
"We have been persuading AI since January to allow immunisation," NRDF co-ordinator Tahseenullah Khan said.
AI’s support has had a direct effect in some regions.
In FR Peshawar, near embattled Bara, for example, the foundation reached out to 5,345 children whose parents agreed to have their children vaccinated because AI’s approval swayed them, he said.
"We noticed that a demand for vaccination has finally been created, late but still beneficial for FATA children," he said.