Doctor abductions hurt Pakistan's patients
By Ashfaq Yusufzai
PESHAWAR, Pakistan - Doctors in the Pakistani frontier provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan are running scared after nearly 45 consultants were kidnapped for ransom this year.
Police suspect that gangs enjoying the Taliban's patronage are behind the abductions that are just a symptom of the many challenges the country faces as it battles terrorism, ethnic conflicts and sectarian divisions. With many doctors striking work to demand government action or leaving for safer places, patient care in both provinces - which together account for 32 million people in a country of 185 million - has suffered a setback.
"A spate of kidnappings of senior doctors has adversely affected patient care in the hospitals of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan," Dr Shah Sawar, president of the Provincial Doctors Association (PDA) told IPS.
Doctors usually work in government hospitals in the morning
hours and many have private practice in the evenings, earning anything between US$10,000 and $30,000 a month. Almost all the victims have been abducted for ransom.
Doctors in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's state-run hospitals struck work after the kidnapping of Professor Amjad Taqweem December 3. The only rheumatologist at Lady Reading Hospital (LRH) here, he was the 12th consultant to be kidnapped in the province this year, says the PDA.
Due to the strike, the 1,650-bed LRH remained shut even though it receives about 5,000 patients every day. One of the biggest hospitals in the province, it has 500 specialists.
"Doctors don't want to cause problems to patients by striking, but there is no other way to pressure the government into rescuing their abducted colleagues," Sawar said.
Earlier this month, doctors observed a strike at Hayatabad Medical Complex, a tertiary care hospital in Peshawar. Sawar said Khyber Pakhtunkhwa had about 700 specialists such as surgeons, psychiatrists and pediatricians. But with the kidnappings creating a scare, at least 20 specialists have left for Islamabad for foreign shores in the past six months.
Police suspect that most of the gangs carrying out the abductions operate under the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. The Taliban raise a lot of money from kidnappings, say police.
"By kidnapping doctors, the Taliban not only make hefty amounts but also deprive people of treatment," said police officer Abidullah Shah.
He cited the case of Professor Manzoor Ahmed, a physician who had left Canada to come back and serve his own people. Ahmed was kidnapped in May this year from the upscale area of Hayatabad, and was released after paying a ransom of $100,000.
"The very next day, he left for Canada, leaving hundreds of patients high and dry," Shah who investigated the kidnapping, told IPS.
Professor Musa Kaleem, a general surgeon, said the kidnappings had caused medical practitioners to either seriously contemplate leaving the city, or prompted them to hire guards.
"Most doctors live in constant fear as they are soft targets," Kaleem said. "The ultimate sufferers are patients who are unable to access specialists."
Peshawar police chief Ijaz Ahmed said doctors would get full security. "We are deploying a quick response force near private and government hospitals to stem the tide of kidnappings," he said.
The government is also considering a request by doctors to issue arms licences to them, he says.
Most victims have been kidnapped from the road after sunset. Sometimes the hideouts are not far from their homes.
Dr Mushtaq Khan, who was kidnapped in February this year, told relatives that after receiving the ransom his captors had asked where he would like to be dropped. "Within a few minutes he was at his home in Hayatabad, which means he had been held captive somewhere nearby," said Dr Abdul Basit, Khan's first cousin.
Doctors in Balochistan, another province in the grip of ethnic and militant unrest and periodic violence, have also been protesting the kidnapping of 27 colleagues in the past year, according to the Pakistan Medical Association (PMA) Balochistan chapter.
While 26 of them are still missing, one was released after paying close to $500,000 to the kidnappers. "He was picked up on September 17 and set free December 1. His family suffered a great deal of trauma," Dr Sultan Tareen, PMA's Balochistan president, told IPS on telephone.
Tareen said the province had only 200 specialists - not enough to cater to its 10 million people. Balochistan, spread over 44% of Pakistan's land mass, is the country's largest province and the vastness makes it difficult for people in far-flung places to access medical care.
"About 10 consultants have left Quetta, Pishin, Kalat and other cities due to the fear of being kidnapped. Lack of security can trigger a brain drain," he said.
Tareen said doctors had been asked to get arms licences and employ guards.
"We are all afraid as we belong to the same income group and may be on the watch list of kidnappers," he said.
Professor Abdur Rehman, a Peshawar-based ophthalmologist, was kidnapped January 29 2013. "He has restricted his activities ever since he was freed in June," Dr Subhan Ali, one of his assistants, told IPS.
He used to see around 500 patients every day, the majority of who were not charged at all. Patients at his medical camps used to receive free drugs and even glasses. But now he has shut the camps because he didn't want to get exposed to kidnappers. Several gangs operate in the city and there is always the fear of another group targeting him.
"He has stopped holding the camps," the assistant said. People who used to get free checkups and medication are at the receiving end, he said.
The city's top pediatrician, Professor Abdul Hameed, who foiled an attempt to kidnap him in September, has been spending most of his time at home. Dr Sawar said, "After the incident, he has stopped examining children."