01/21/2014, 00.00
PAKISTAN
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Peshawar, a priest at the forefront of anti- polio vaccination campaigns

by Jibran Khan
Fr. Anwar Patras , with the support of Church leadership dedicates his mission to fighting the disease. After the Taliban began targeting volunteers vaccination campaigns were interrupted and the disease has become an "epidemic”. This morning, three more victims among operators. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is the major source of infection.

Islamabad ( AsiaNews) - "The assassination of volunteers engaged in the vaccination campaigns against polio broke my heart. After the bloodshed nobody wanted to continue the project of prevention. This is why I felt the need to do something to help the younger generation to be born without the risk of disease", Fr. Anwar Patras tells AsiaNews.  The Pakistani priest is active in the areas of Nowshera and Attock in the north-western province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa . With the permission of Church leaders, he has devoted much of his life and mission to promoting vaccination against the disease, knocking door to door and meeting people, regardless of ethnicity or faith. And to those who ask why a priest decided to devote himself to this project, he explains that "this is not about religion, but we are talking about humanity ... and my faith teaches me to see the human being as a whole".

Meanwhile, attacks against aid workers and volunteers continue despite ample reassurances regarding security provided by the provincial government of Sindh , who only yesterday took over the operations of vaccination.  This morning a team was attacked in Qayummabad, Karachi city. Local witnesses reported that two men on a motorcycle opened fire on a group of professionals who were giving the vaccine to two children, killing three people. Activities were immediately suspended. Health have denounced their dangerous working conditions for less than 2.5 dollars a day.

In a recent report, the World Health Organization has recognized the effectiveness of India in the fight against polio , eradicated from the country as a whole . The situation in neighboring Pakistan and particularly in Peshawar, capital of the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, is dramatically different where the main basin of the spread and infection is concentrated. Of the new 83 documented cases, 79 are well documented in the city.

A serious and urgent problem, to which Fr. Anwar Patras has decided to devote a part of his life and his mission: "I'm just doing my part against polio - adds the priest - just as any of us can do, trying to contribute to the fight against polio". Dr. Fazal Haq, of the Lady Reading Hospital in Peshawar , confirms the seriousness of the situation , which he terms as "critical." On the one hand there is the "scourge of terrorism " , which affects those who fight to eradicate the disease that is becoming a real " epidemic". He hopes for a resumption of vaccination campaigns to "save succeeding generations".

Pakistan is one of only three countries left in the world where polio is endemic. In 2011, it had 198 confirmed cases, the highest number of any nation in the world, but in 2012, this was brought down to 58 through a vaccination programme backed by the United Nations. Islamic extremists could however reverse this progress.

In 2012 two powerful Pakistani Taliban militants have banned vaccinations in North and South Waziristan over roughly the past year because of their opposition to US drone strikes. The militiamen , in response to U.S. drone strikes have also killed a dozen among workers, volunteers and security officers. In 2011, there were eight deaths among the volunteers, 12 more last year , which is why the government and international agencies halted their campaigns, prompting new peaks of the disease.

Militants claim that the vaccine is meant to sterilise Muslim children and have accused health workers of being US spies. The allegation gained traction after the CIA used a Pakistani doctor to try to confirm the presence of Osama bin Laden in 2011 in Abbottabad, not far from the capital Islamabad, under the guise of an immunisation programme.

Children are the big losers in this war between the Taliban and the government, with more and more of them falling prey to the disease.

 

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