The Polio Murders

From the fulminations of Swat’s polio-hobbled Maulana Fazlullah to Shakeel Afridi’s vaccination ruse to the latest attacks on health workers, Pakistan’s anti-polio campaign faces tough challenges. But all may not be lost.

By Benazir Shah and Sami Yousafzai NEWSWEEK

Sitting across from Tahseenullah Khan was the anti-polio campaign’s most vociferous critic, Maulana Fazlullah—the militant leader of Swat, who used his illegal radio transmissions to stir up propaganda against life-saving immunizations. Khan and his three colleagues from the nonprofit National Research & Development Fund had come to implore Fazlullah and his dozen or so comrades to allow health workers safe access to local children. Swat Valley, said the black-turbaned chieftain, would do no such thing. The anti-polio drive is un-Islamic, he continued, a conspiracy hatched by Jews and Christians to clip Muslim population growth.

But Khan kept at it, and the militant finally began to crack. Vaccinations will only be allowed once U.S. troops leave Afghanistan, Fazlullah offered, or if the killing of Palestinians cease. Six hours of patient presentation later, the campaigner extracted the concession he had come for. While Fazlullah refused to retract his previous statements, he did acquiesce to the government’s fresh anti-polio campaign. Fazlullah’s surrender may have had personal motivations. As Khan got up to leave Fazlullah’s madrassah, he recognized the Taliban leader’s limp. “Have you been tested for polio?” he cautiously asked, knowing the answer. Fazlullah, flanked by two gunmen, stood silent for a few moments, then hobbled away.

For Khan, this was the toughest sell in his 14 years as a mediator between rank ignorance and government-funded efforts to root out the disease. The tense exchange with Fazlullah happened in 2008, when Pakistan had 117 confirmed cases of polio, an epidemic. This year the country has had 56, according to the World Health Organization. Next year, though, could well be a different story. After last week’s attacks over two days by gunmen on motorcycles in Karachi, Peshawar, Charsadda and Nowshera, the latest three-day nationwide vaccination campaign has been suspended. Nine health workers, including six women, are dead.


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