VIEW : Eliminating polio from Pakistan — Saleem Shaikh
The announcements byboth Taliban groups may prove a serious blow to the already besieged anti-polio drive in FATA where polio cases are on the rise
Pakistan’s polio eradication efforts have failed to bear success so far because of, among other factors, weak service delivery, persisting conflict in the northern areas and waning confidence of families. Last year, Pakistan reported the highest number of polio cases in a decade, 198 in total, compared to 144 in 2010, while Afghanistan had 81 cases, up from 30 the year before, according to a study published in the international medical journal The Lancet.
Newly introduced vaccines, the study says, had the potential to eliminate polio in these countries if sufficient numbers of children could be reached. In fact, the elimination of polio disease in affected parts of the country has become difficult on account of armed conflict, security concerns, cultural barriers and natural disasters that have posed challenges to the accessibility of those engaged in the administration of polio drops.
Poliomyelitis, a crippling disease of the nervous system, was considered endemic in more than 125 countries in 1988. But today, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria are the only countries with the disease still at large. India managed to eradicate it in February, thanks to the impact of a massive vaccination campaign, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) website.
The highly infectious disease hits mainly under-fives, causing paralysis in a matter of hours and in some cases, it can become fatal. While Pakistan expedited recently amid international pressures to wipe out the viral disease, an Urdu-language pamphlet distributed last month by militants in Wana, a tribal town of South Waziristan Agency in FATA, has put the country’s anti-polio vaccination drive in sheer jeopardy. Mullah Nazir, commander of his own faction of the Taliban in South Waziristan, has warned health workers in the pamphlet to stay away from polio vaccination drives or face dire consequences. He has linked allowing polio and other foreign-funded vaccination drives in Wana subdivision to US drone operations in the Agency being halted.
These warnings have further strengthened the fears of the health workers engaged in the anti-polio campaigns of being killed if they continue with polio vaccination administration activities in the FATA areas. The warning is not the first of its kind to pour in from tribal militants since a Pakistani doctor was convicted of assisting the CIA in locating former al Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden, by running a fake polio vaccination campaign in Abbottabad last year.
Mullah Nazir’s handout calls the “traitor Dr Shakeel Afridi’s fake campaign in Abbottabad” proof that “infidel forces are using media, education and development as a tool to gag Muslims.” A ban in Wana was put in place earlier in the North Waziristan Agency by the Hafiz Gul Bahadar faction of the Taliban, who are alleged by the United States of having close ties to al Qaeda and the Haqqani network. These two militant factions have remained the key target of US drones in FATA, as the US-led coalition forces blame them for providing refuge to al Qaeda-linked foreign fighters, besides sending them across the border into Afghanistan.
The announcements by both Taliban groups may prove a serious blow to the already besieged anti-polio drive in FATA where polio cases are on the rise; nevertheless, the commitment of some officials to continue with their endeavours to eradicate the lethal infectious virus remains unshaken. Dr Janbaz Afridi, director of the Expanded Programme of Immunisation in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa reportedly said while diplomatic channels are being utilised and the local tribal elders are persuaded to bolster the government’s anti-polio efforts, hopefully the post-warning situation will ease.
According to government reports, there is only one polio case in North Waziristan this year as compared to 14 last year. In South Waziristan too, only one case of polio has been confirmed that surfaced this year. In 2011, there were a total four polio cases.
A total of 173 polio cases were reported in 2011, 144 in 2010 and 116 in 2009.
If the government fails to convince the militants to withdraw their warnings and the United States refuses to bring its drone war to a halt in the conflict-torn area of this country, the lives of around 241,000 children under the age of five in North and South Waziristan will be at stark risk.
However, no one would want the recent gains in the fight against polio cases go down the drain with the two latest warnings. The way out is persuading the armed militants not to use children as a ploy and hold talks that will lead to permanent peace in the war-torn FATA. No one would like to see the lives of thousands of children endangered.
Religious leaders must be taken on board on the preventive and curative sides, and encouraged to play their part by raising awareness about the severity of the disease. Considered as credible opinion leaders by the local communities, these religious leaders can also help pave the way for smooth sailing of the campaign of vaccination.
Different research studies have proved that open defecation in rural areas has become a major cause of the spread of the polio virus in children. However, launching awareness-raising programmes about the importance of safe sanitation and hygiene among parents and children through different opinion leaders is equally significant, besides administration of polio drops for stamping out polio. In this regard, engaging religious leaders and schoolteachers in promoting safe sanitation and hygiene practices will be of great help.
The writer is Deputy Director at the Ministry of Climate Change in Islamabad