Playing the blame game with polio

It is deeply troublesome that over the past few years, several kidnappings, beatings and killings of vaccinators have been reported

Playing the blame game with polio

In June 2013, the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned Imran Khan to tackle the transmission of polio virus and factors affecting the polio campaign but there was a poor response from the provincial government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and now WHO has declared that the capital city of the province, Peshawar, is the largest hub of polio in the world. Pakistan has struggled for years to eradicate the disease through a series of repeated vaccination campaigns. That effort has been hampered in recent years by militant attacks, which have left scores of vaccinators and the police officers who protect them dead. Powerful Pakistani Taliban militants have also banned vaccinators from North and South Waziristan, two tribal regions that border Afghanistan to the west.

A staggering 173 polio cases were officially reported during 2011 and 58 cases in 2012. Last year, 91 cases were reported. It is going to become even worse as necessary monitoring measures are not being taken. There are many factors contributing towards the rise in polio cases in Pakistan, for example widespread corruption on the organisational level, poor planning, lack of public awareness campaigns, religious mindset, illiteracy, etc. I was surprised to find that among all these factors, the religious mindset tops the list when it comes to hampering the polio eradication programme.

Various research groups of epidemiologists believe that religious opposition by Muslim fundamentalists is a major factor in the failure of immunisation programmes against polio in Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The local Taliban have issued fatwas (religious edicts) denouncing vaccination as a US ploy to sterilise Muslims. Another common superstition spread by extremists is that vaccination is an attempt to avert the will of Allah. The Taliban have assassinated vaccination officials, including Abdul Ghani Marwat, who was the head of the government’s vaccination campaign in Bajaur Agency in the Pakistani tribal areas. It is deeply troublesome that over the past few years, several kidnappings, beatings and killings of vaccinators have been reported. This is the picture depicted by various research groups about why Pakistan is a safe haven for the polio virus. These are the factors that need to be addressed to stop the spread of polio but Imran Khan and his Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government are busy strengthening those factors instead; it is not wrong to say that Imran Khan and his government are equally responsible for making Peshawar the hub of polio in the world.

Now, let us come to another part of this sorry saga. Imran Khan has blamed Dr Shakil Afridi as being partially responsible for the spread of polio in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Since May 2011, a section of the Pakistani media has been propagating baseless rumours that a CIA fake polio vaccination campaign is the sole cause of spreading polio in the country. Interestingly, none other than the Pakistani media has highlighted and spread false rumours about the CIA polio vaccination campaign. This has created panic in Pakistan.

The story is very simple: Dr Shakil Afridi was booked on treason charges for allegedly conducting a fake polio vaccination campaign to find the hideout of the world’s deadliest terrorist, Osama bin Laden. He was arrested on May 22, 2011, exactly 20 days after Osama’s death by US Navy SEALs. Since the raid on May 2, 2011, there have been unending, widespread rumours propagated by the media that Dr Shakil Afridi had conducted fake oral polio vaccinations to take DNA samples of his specific target, which was Osama. These false rumours had a negative impact on the polio eradication programme in Pakistan.

Since May 2011 to date, around 320 cases have been reported in the country. The people of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and other parts of the country refused to administer drops to their children after these reports. Refusal cases increased to double (around 150,000 cases) last year as compared to 2012 (74,000 cases). Allegations of fake polio vaccinations are no more than an illusion because this myth is far from scientific fact. WHO’s special envoy on global polio eradication and primary healthcare, Dr Hussain A Gezari is of the view that the alleged fake immunisation conducted by Dr Shakil Afridi had nothing to do with polio campaigns as DNA cannot be collected orally. Let me make clear that Dr Shakil Afridi had conducted an actual vaccination campaign. He served the nation. Some sections of society and the media are deliberately highlighting this issue to hamper the polio vaccination campaign. They are accomplices to the crime of spreading the polio virus in Pakistan. It is surprising to me that those forces that were playing their nefarious role in spreading the polio virus in our country have gone scot-free. The prisoner of conscience, Dr Shakil Afridi, is in the custody of secret agencies.

Dr Shakil Afridi is not even partially responsible for the spread of polio in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The fact is that Imran Khan and his provincial government are responsible for the spread of polio. Imran is blaming Dr Shakil Afridi to hide his provincial government’s negligence. I would suggest that Mr Khan please not tell white lies when it is a matter of science; he may speak his white lies as per his routine when the topic is other than science. It will be a great service to the nation on his part.


The writer is a freelance columnist