Polio has been infecting humans since at least the time of the Pharaohs, until the 20th century when aggressive outbreaks led to intensified responses, and consequently to critical leaps forward in medicine at large. Polio cases were behind the introduction of intensive care units in hospitals. The millions in the West who survived epidemics, left with paralysis and other disabilities, spurred the modern disability rights movement. Most importantly was the discovery of the first polio vaccine in the 1950s.
Polio has no cure, so getting vaccinated is the best way to survive it. Vaccination campaigns that are national in scope can wipe out polio altogether from countries.
Canada saw its last polio epidemic in 1959, and along with all countries in the Americas, was certified polio free by 1994. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative was launched in 1988, and stands out as one of the great successes of disease eradication.
From 125 countries with endemic polio the year the campaign was launched, today there are only three countries left in the world with polio. They are Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria.
The end is in sight. Amidst the steady deluge of ominous headlines, here is a radiating bright spot: a debilitating and sometimes deadly disease that has ravaged humans for millennia is on the verge of becoming history. Finishing off polio will be a triumph: an undisputed, non-contentious and utterly noble objective—something all the world can agree upon.
Yet it's not. There is one group that doesn't care to see polio stop stealing and crippling young lives. It's the Taliban. In a part of the world constituting polio's last stronghold, the greatest foe is not new outbreaks or vaccine shortages. Its grizzly militants with room on their agenda for one more bone to add to the anatomy of their death cult ideology.
Polio vaccinations are now suspended in Pakistan, which has the highest polio rate in the world, after Taliban militants murdered nine women vaccination workers in highly coordinated, pre-planned attacks over a period of three days this month.
The Taliban have previously worked to block immunization workers in Pakistan and Afghanistan. A secondary school student named Anisa who volunteered as an antipolio vaccinator in Kapisa province was killed after being shot six times on December 2. In July 2011, a UN doctor was shot and killed in Karachi, and three days later another doctor was shot but survived.
These reports earned brief mention in the media. Most do not. Health workers in Afghanistan and Pakistan are not just on the frontline of the fight against polio, but find themselves explicit targets of the Taliban. Take for instance the experience of a single rural district in Afghanistan, Zhari in Kandahar. On December 5, polio immunization workers there were abducted for three days by insurgents. Another health worker was kidnapped there in January, and 10 vaccinators were kidnapped in the same district in 2008 and eventually released (though the abductors hung on to their vaccines).
Zhari is a microcosm of what's happening off the radar in Afghanistan's and Pakistan's most kinetic areas. The World Health Organization reports frequent threats against polio workers. Health workers involved in polio immunization have quit their jobs in fear for their lives, and volunteers who help the campaign run are reportedly not showing up to work anymore. And with good reason: more polio vaccinators in Afghanistan and Pakistan have now been killed by militants than people killed by polio.
It is no coincidence that polio infections are highest in areas of militant activity. The New York Times reported on December 18 that "people fleeing fighting in those areas have also spread the disease to Karachi, the country's largest city, where the disease has been making a worrisome comeback in recent years." The Asian Human Rights Commission reported that Karachi's slums, where many of the women health workers were killed, were Pashtun-speaking areas where Taliban were known to have a presence.
It is also not a coincidence that polio eradication depends on women, another foe of the Taliban's. It is women who can enter households to administer vaccines, in a society where unrelated men can't have contact with women. Consistent with the usual outcome of Taliban actions, their campaign against those working to end polio is not harming their avowed enemies in the West, but the most poor and vulnerable among Pakistanis and Afghans.
The Taliban have expressed various reasons for their opposition to the anti-polio drive. Radical militant Maulvi Fazlullah has said polio vaccines are used to sterilize Muslims. A Pakistani health official named Gul Naz reported that vaccinators receive calls warning them that the campaign against polio is "infidel" led. Other reports voiced in the Pakistani press have claimed that vaccinators were actually really killed by spies from, variably, the US, Israel or India. In Nigeria, Islamist militants say polio vaccinations go against the will of God.
There is no doubt that superstition, paranoia, and ignorance play a role in what is ultimately a deplorable position on a matter for which there is otherwise unanimous international consensus. But the underlying reason is even simpler, and it's also consistent with everything the Taliban have always stood for.
The Taliban are against modernity. They want to end girls' education, and secular education for everyone. They kill engineers and road workers trying to build infrastructure in Afghanistan. They stalk, mutilate and murder journalists, teachers, lawyers and human rights activists. They want women removed from politics, from the professions, and from public life. And now they want to sabotage the effort to end a disease so close to its twilight. If there is something that promotes health and happiness, the Taliban will oppose it. I believe that's called… well, evil.