A suicide bombing killed at least 15 people outside a polio eradication center in Quetta, Pakistan, on Wednesday, detonating just as a police escort had arrived to accompany vaccination workers in the southeastern province of Balochistan. Responsibility for the attack was claimed by two different groups, according to Reuters: the Pakistani Taliban and the Taliban-linked Jundullah. It’s the latest attack in an ongoing campaign of violence against polio vaccination campaigns in the region, which the Taliban and affiliated groups accuse, variously, of being a plot to sterilize Muslim children or a cover for Western spies. Unfortunately, the CIA didn’t exactly help matters by actually using a vaccination campaign as a cover for spies prior to the Osama Bin Laden raid.
This campaign of violence is fast becoming the main factor standing between the world and the eradication of polio. Pakistan and Afghanistan are the only countries where the disease remains endemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were only 66 cases reported globally last year. In fact, polio-related murders now kill more people than the disease itself. The Afghan Taliban has actually been more willing to allow anti-polio campaigns than its Pakistani counterparts, but armed conflict has still made eradication efforts difficult.
Driving the point home, Wednesday’s attack comes on the same day as a major positive milestone in the fight against the disease. According to the World Health Organization, as of Wednesday, it’s been five years since there’s been a case of wild poliovirus in its Southeast Asian region, which includes India and Bangladesh.
Armed conflict has slowed the final push to eradicate the disease, but even Syria and Somalia, where the disease returned in recent years thanks to instability and violence, have gone more than a year without a new case. Nigeria, which has also seen attacks by Islamist extremists against polio workers, was taken off the endemic list last September.
Pakistan seems likely to be the site of the final battle against the disease. Sadly, the word “battle” can be used quite literally here.