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Attacks on Female Frontline Health Workers in Pakistan

Fighting Polio, Courting Death

Vulnerabilities and risks faced by women health workers in polio eradication programmes are scarcely acknowledged, even as the global polio eradication initiative has unveiled a new gender strategy. Instead of reinforcing cultural stereotypes regarding the distrust about vaccination campaigns, it is essential to address systemic drawbacks. The deaths of women health workers cannot be reduced to being a mere obstacle for the success of the campaign.

 

On 12 December 2019, Bastaj Bibi, a Lady Health Worker (LHW)1 was killed in the Bakkhel area of Bannu in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province in Pakistan while she was on polio vaccination duty. Her rickshaw was attacked and the rickshaw driver also lost his life.2 This unfortunate incident received little international media coverage, though it occurred during a three-day intensive polio vaccination campaign, which commenced on 9 December 2019, following the discovery of a large number of polio cases in Pakistan, a record high since 2017. Incidentally, according to the same report, KP province was the worst affected with 68 cases, in all of which 28 cases occurred in Bannu and 19 cases in the nearby Lakki Marwat region.3

It might be recalled that a nationwide anti-polio vaccination drive launched on 22 April 2019 had to be suspended when gunmen opened fire on female health workers on vaccination rounds, killing Nasreen Bibi (aged 35) and wounding Rashida Afzal (aged 24) in the south-western town of Chaman’s remote village of Sultan Zai, which lies in the north-west of Balochistan’s provincial town Quetta.4 Two weeks earlier, in two separate incidents, policemen chaperoning polio teams were killed in Buner and Bannu, whilst another male polio worker working with the United Nations (UN) and advocating for vaccination in Ghazi Beg area of Malumzai tehsil in Mohmand tribal district (KP province) was murdered.5 Around the same time, 25,000 children were rushed to hospitals in north-western Pakistan, with social media-fuelled rumours that polio drops were making children ill.6

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Updated On : 2nd Mar, 2020

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