Being a polio worker in Pakistan has to be one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Since 2012, militants opposed to the vaccination campaign have killed 68 polio workers and policemen tasked with protecting them. Of the 300 cases of polio infection reported last, most come from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and FATA. In the last three years, 23 cases have emerged in Karachi alone – all of them from communities related to KP and FATA. The two major hurdles in the drive against polio are propaganda and direct violence.

Several parents refuse to vaccinate their children because they consider the whole thing to be a Western conspiracy. Some believe that the polio drops cause infertility while others view the campaign as a cover for a wide-scale spying exercise. That Dr Shakil Afridi ran a fake vaccination campaign for the US to track down Osama Bin Laden has certainly not helped. Now, there is proof if any was ever required. The issue of non-cooperation by certain communities is exacerbated by the violence unleashed on polio workers and policemen guarding them. Militants have been consistently targeting them to keep them out of certain areas, leading to a rise in cases despite intensified efforts. It is not only a message for those working as part of the anti-polio campaign, but also serves as a warning for people living in militant strongholds. An obvious solution to this would be to provide enhanced security to vaccination teams, but it is easier said than done.

In Karachi, for example, the police force is far too small to deal with the situation. The city is plagued with ethnic, political and sectarian violence, and despite the ongoing operation led by Rangers, the killings have not been curbed. Taking a chunk of police officials and tasking them with protection of polio workers would make it even more difficult to manage law and order. Therefore, without increasing capacity on an emergency basis, no lasting solution can be achieved. The government is attempting to counter propaganda surrounding polio through awareness campaigns and by taking religious scholars on board. Their endorsement certainly carries weight in communities that are opposed to vaccinations due to religious beliefs. However, polio workers remain vulnerable to violence. Most of them are poor individuals, who cannot afford to turn down a job even though it pays very little. But the price they end up paying for doing the good work of securing children against a paralyzing infection is far too high.