Region of Concern: Pakistan
Written By Iris Hautaniemi Forsberg; Edited by Cameron Munoz, Senior Editor
Date: May 25, 2023
Polio vaccination in Pakistan
Event: On May 25, gunmen attacked a polio vaccination team in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. Three police officers assigned to guard the team were wounded, and the attackers fled. The only two nations in the world where the polio virus still exists are Pakistan and Afghanistan, the latter of which borders the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. In January 2023, the Pakistani government launched a large-scale campaign to vaccinate all children under five after an increase in infections in 2022. All 20 cases in 2022 were reported in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, a part of the country frequently targeted by terrorists. Several attacks on vaccination teams and security personnel occurred in 2022. It is unclear which groups are responsible for these attacks, but Islamist militant groups often express anti-vaccination sentiments, believing vaccines contain pig fat and are made to sterilize Muslim children.
Significance: Militants attacking polio vaccination teams are very likely attempting to increase fear among vaccination personnel to disrupt immunization efforts. The attacks will likely also increase fears among civilians who risk being targeted while visiting vaccination sites, increasing civilian casualties. Continued attacks will very likely lead to hesitation from health officials and medical personnel to visit certain areas in Pakistan for fear of being attacked. As the vaccination campaign continues, the militant groups will likely increase efforts to spread disinformation about the vaccine through their media channels. Failure to vaccinate children against polio in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa because of violence will likely lead to increased cases that can spread to surrounding regions and, in the worst case, to neighboring countries. Ongoing attacks on vaccination teams will likely lead to international pressure from the World Health Organization (WHO) and pharmaceutical companies on the Pakistani government to increase protection for vaccination teams. The fear of violence at vaccination sites and of children contracting polio will likely lead to public dissent towards the government, resulting in large-scale protests in larger cities.
Recommendations: The Pakistani government should immediately work to ensure the protection of vaccination teams by deploying more law enforcement personnel. More permanent vaccination sites should be implemented in areas with high numbers of reported polio cases, allowing for easier development of security protocols and permanent security personnel. The local governments in Pakistan should work with community leaders to increase information campaigns about the polio vaccination to counter possible disinformation from regional militant groups. This information campaign should be spread through social media, news outlets, and pamphlets. International health organizations involved in the polio vaccination campaign, such as WHO and Rotary International, should work with local governments to develop safer vaccination processes for health workers in Pakistan. This work should involve other experts from other countries that have managed to overcome the same problems, such as Nigeria. Countries in the international community should boost funding to the WHO, which can be used to improve both the vaccination campaign and the safety of its workers.
 Three Police Wounded In Attack On Polio Vaccination Team In Pakistan, Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, May 2023, https://www.rferl.org/a/pakistan-police-attacked-polio-vaccination/32427417.html
 Pakistan Launches First Anti-Polio Campaign of 2023, Voice of America, January 2023, https://www.voanews.com/a/pakistan-lunches-first-anti-polio-campaign-of-2023-/6920241.html
 Militants in Pakistan attack polio vaccination team, killing three, Reuters, June 2022, https://www.reuters.com/business/healthcare-pharmaceuticals/militants-pakistan-attack-polio-vaccination-team-killing-three-2022-06-28/