Michael Gerson: When healers are the targets

BY MICHAEL GERSON Published: December 22, 2012
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The murder of eight polio vaccination workers during 48 hours in Pakistan has all the hallmarks of a Taliban operation: coordinated, ruthless and monstrous. The attacks have succeeded in shutting down an anti-polio campaign in Pakistan's largest city of Karachi and other areas.

It could hardly come at a worse time in the global effort against the disease. Polio was one of the most feared diagnoses of the 20th century. As late as the 1950s, 20,000 Americans were paralyzed each year. But following the development and distribution of the polio vaccine, America saw its last naturally occurring case in 1979.

Over the last few decades, this outcome has been nearly duplicated on a global scale. More than 99 percent of infections have been eliminated.

In Pakistan, more than 80,000 field workers are attempting to vaccinate 33 million children in a geographically rolling campaign. Teams of three to eight vaccinators go door to door in a focused area, providing drops to every child under 5. Others are posted to bus and train stations to cover children in transit. It is impossible to provide security to an effort of this size — which the Taliban have noticed.

The targeting of health workers is another reminder of Taliban tactics and ideology. It is a movement, in its various forms, recently responsible for shooting 15-year-old education activist Malala Yousafzai and beheading 17 men and women in the Musa Qala district of Afghanistan's Helmand province. Vaccination has been a long-standing obsession. In June, a Taliban warlord declared, “Polio drops will be banned in North Waziristan” until American drone strikes cease. It is a strategy both cruel and typical: The intentional infliction of paralysis on Pakistani children as a negotiating ploy.

Yet some blandly talk of negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan, even contemplating their return to power. It would be a nightmare of oppression, misogyny and revenge.

There is also, however, a complex issue here for Americans to consider. The Taliban and associated groups are exploiting a broad suspicion of vaccines in Pakistan, to which the American war on terrorism has unintentionally contributed. Part of the effort to confirm Osama bin Laden's location involved a fake CIA hepatitis vaccination program, designed to extract DNA samples from people living in his Abbottabad compound. The Taliban have used this revelation to raise suspicions about all vaccination programs being a cover for American intelligence.

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