Working in fear for Pakistan's female polio vaccinators

KARACHI, Pakistan – Farhat Javed, 37, has spent the last two years fighting against polio, despite threats against her life. She vaccinates children below five-years of age in Pakistan's southern port of Karachi. 

In the mornings, she leaves her home in one of the city's low-income areas dressed for work in plain clothes, with no mark to identify her as a vaccinator. She and her colleagues have a couple of police officers assigned to guard them. 

Her work is currently focused on Gaddap, a neglected shanty town in Karachi's suburbs, where several vaccinators have already been attacked by suspected Taliban militants. The Taliban attacks are to impose their de facto ban on anti-polio vaccinations, which they started after the CIA used the guise of a vaccination campaign to search for the slain Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. 

“I and my teammates are performing this job at the cost of our lives. We do not know when and where will we be attacked,” says Farhat, who works with the Lady Health Workers Association, an organization that has been carrying out the anti-polio campaigns across Pakistan.

“I admit that I am scared. I am scared of death. But, I have no choice. I cannot see our coming generations limping,” Farhat says adamantly. 

According to local media reports, at least 40 vaccinators have been killed and several have been injured while working; scores of volunteers have said they have received death threats.

“We are risking our lives but the government has polio at the bottom of its priority list,” says Bushra Arain, the chair of the Lady Health Workers Association. “They pay us merely 250 rupees ($2.5 dollars) per day. And this amount is not even being paid for last several months.”

The extent of Pakistan's polio crisis, which saw 254 cases reported in 2014, led to the World Health Organization imposed travel restrictions on the country in June. Nigeria and Afghanistan are the only two other countries where polio is endemic. 

The northwestern tribal belt, where the Taliban is strongest, is where 80 percent of polio cases have been reported and vaccination campaigns have struggled to operate but the vaccinators are hopeful that ongoing military operations against the Taliban could provide more security. 

“We do hope that things will get better in the wake of these operations,” said Arain. “We feel little relaxed as I believe that the terrorists are on the run to save their lives and attacking vaccinators would not be their priority.”

“What we can do on our part is that we will not surrender before the terrorists. No matter whether the government pays us or not, it provides us adequate security or not, we will continue our mission,” she said. “This is the matter of our generations’ future.”

Copyright © 2015 Anadolu Agency