Save the Children leaves anti-polio programme in disarray


Shahina Maqbool

International media reports confirming Save the Children’s collaborative role in the CIA-led hunt for Osama bin Laden through a phoney vaccination campaign conducted in Abbottabad, followed by the Ministry of Interior’s orders for expulsion of the aid organization’s international staff from Pakistan within two weeks, has left the country’s largest health programme — the Polio Eradication Initiative — in a state of disarray, with a serious credibility crisis topping its list of challenges.

International donor agencies working in Pakistan are more sceptical about the future of polio eradication today, than they were ever in the past. They believe that Save the Children’s alleged role in introducing Dr. Shakeel Afridi to the CIA “has impaired the credibility of the polio programme in the same irreversible way as the polio virus cripples a child.” According to the international media, the organisation has been found guilty of sponsoring a fake vaccination campaign in which Dr. Afridi, who is now serving a 33-year imprisonment term, assisted the CIA in tracking down Osama Bin Laden.

Talking to this scribe, senior officials of various donor agencies expressed serious doubts about the future of health programmes in Pakistan, particularly the polio eradication initiative, which is struggling to reach children with amidst challenges including the Taliban-imposed ban on immunisation campaigns, and defiance on part of parents who are refusing the administration of anti-polio drops to their children because of the programme’s declining public credibility.

“Dr. Afridi has caused irreparable damage to the polio programme, particularly in Fata. The Taliban have clamped a ban on the anti-polio drive, fearing a repeat of an Abbottabad-like incident,” an official said, reiterating an oft-repeated viewpoint. “Thousands of families in different parts of the country are refusing polio vaccination because of Dr. Afridi’s dirty role in the affair,” stated another. He said, 40,000 families refused anti-polio drops during the recently held polio campaign; of these, 19,000 families were from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa alone.

A KP-based official of the Expanded Programme on Immunisation confirmed that, “During the recently held polio drive in Peshawar, Mardan, Charsadda and Lakki Marwat, more than 7,300 families refused anti-polio drops due to Dr. Afridi’s alleged involvement in a health campaign. Earlier on, only educated families used to refuse polio vaccine because of Dr. Afridi; now, even poor and uneducated families are resisting vaccination for the same reason.”

When asked, Elias Durry, chief of polio eradication at the World Health Organisation said, “We understand that such news may have a negative impact on polio eradication. But we want to make it clear that anti-polio drops are given into the mouth of children and there is no way that any sample can be taken for DNA or other tests.”

The fake Hepatitis campaign conducted in Abbottabad was aimed at collecting the DNA samples of people living in Osama’s hideout. Unicef did not respond to an email query questioning the impact of the scandal on eradication efforts. The organisation is, however, on record as having stated that “The scandal has caused no serious damage to the credibility of the polio eradication initiative, and that few, if any, refusals are being linked with this issue at all.”

Both Unicef as well as WHO are closely involved in efforts to help Pakistan obtain riddance from polio virus, which has affected 30 children so far this year, the latest case having been confirmed from Swabi at the time when this report was being filed on September 6.

Other international staff regretted that while many UN and other agencies that are directly associated with the polio programme have ended up paying the price for Dr. Afridi’s involvement in the operation, Save the Children never bothered to take corrective measures for restoration of lost public confidence in the anti-polio drive.

Presenting a viewpoint to the contrary, a senior official of the polio programme said, “Save the Children has never been operationally involved in polio eradication. As such, the closure of its operations in Pakistan, if at all, will not have any impact on the polio programme.” He said, “There is nothing new about Save the Children’s association with the CIA-led operation. It has been public ever since the unfolding of the Abbottabad operation. We are already dealing with its aftermath through various strategies being implemented with the assistance of a vast network of communicators and social mobilisers. As days pass by and acceptability of the campaign increases, we will be better placed to counter the impact, particularly with reference to public misperception.”

While rumours are now rife about all offices of Save the Children in the country being shut down within a year, if not earlier, the organisation’s communications director Ghulam Qadri rejected such a possibility. “We do not have any information on this. It is untrue and false,” he categorically stated. Qadri did, however, confirm having received a communication from the Ministry of Interior, wherein all international staff of the organisation has been asked to leave Pakistan within two weeks. The order does not contain any mention of the reason governing the decision. Qadri said, Save the Children has a total strength of 6 international and 2,000 national staff. “The senior leadership of the programme mostly comprises local staff. This does not imply that the departure of international staff will have no impact on the programme because most of them were technical experts. At the same time, however, programme operations will continue uninterrupted throughout Pakistan,” Qadri shared.

Well-placed sources within Save the Children revealed that the organisation’s Country Director David Wright has already left Pakistan, while remaining international staff members are also packing up to leave during the current week.

Interestingly, during the month of March, David Wright had condemned the phoney CIA campaign while talking to a section of the press. “Our ability to continue this important work has been seriously undermined by CIA’s use of humanitarian activity as a cover for their intelligence gathering,” he had stated while commenting over a joint letter sent to CIA’s Director General David Petraeus by more than 100 US-based NGOs.

Although Save the Children’s spokesman categorically denied the existence of any links of the aid agency with Dr. Afridi, one thing is for certain. Before this development, people were merely suspicious of the activities of aid agencies; now, they have reasons to believe that these organisations have multiple agendas to implement. As such, it is about time for the handsomely-paid communications and awareness-building specialists of the polio programme in Pakistan to brace for the treacherous path ahead. Polio communications will, henceforth, be anything but a cakewalk.

Courtesy The News Rawalpindi

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