Pakistan remains one of the few countries in the world where polio persists, a highly infectious disease transmitted via contaminated food and water. New cases have recently surfaced in tribal areas. Unfortunately, the Taliban has imposed a vaccination ban in Waziristan, the so-called global headquarters of Al Qaeda and Taliban-linked militants.
This year, the total number of polio cases in the country has reached 54, compared to 58 cases reported last year. The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the tribal region a major obstacle standing in the way of efforts to eradicate polio. The Taliban has called the polio vaccine un-Islamic and linked the lifting of a ban on vaccinations with the halting of drone attacks.
The extremists describe vaccination efforts as an “infidel” campaign and have attacked relief workers who’ve attempted to administer the vaccine. The Taliban believes that western powers are using polio vaccination programmes as a cover for espionage. The extremists also suggest the vaccine contains pig fat and leads to infertility.
The situation in Pakistan bears comparison with Syria where polio recently broke out among young children. Like Pakistan, Syria’s poor security situation is a major cause of the outbreak. A significant number of children went unvaccinated due to the civil war in Syria. The Syrian outbreak, which poses a threat to millions of children across the Middle East, is linked to the virus that originated in Pakistan.
The virus has travelled over land to Syria, according to Bruce Aylward, assistant director-general for polio, emergencies and country collaboration at the WHO.
Mr Aylward reportedly said, “We know a polio virus from Pakistan was found in the sewage of Cairo in December. The same virus was found in Israel in April, also in the West Bank and Gaza. It ... is putting the whole Middle East at risk quite frankly.”
Separately, the stubbornness of parents has also played a part.
Around 65,000 families refused to vaccinate their children during the last polio campaign in the country, according to Per Engebak, the chief of Unicef’s anti-polio programme in Pakistan.
But the biggest obstacle to the eradication of polio is the lack of consistent access to children in tribal areas.
The attacks on polio vaccination volunteers also expose the Taliban’s toxic brew of obscurantism, radicalism, ignorance and intolerance.
Since July last year, 24 health workers and policemen protecting them have been killed and 14 others injured in 24 targeted attacks on vaccinators in different parts of the country. The central government, which is poised to hold peace talks with the Pakistan Taliban, has included polio vaccination programme on the agenda for dialogue.
Polio cannot be defeated in Pakistan without defeating the virus of extremism.
Efforts need to be directed at addressing the root causes of growing extremism.
The prevalence of poverty, unemployment, backwardness and illiteracy all provide favourable conditions for the growth of the virus of extremism. War-torn Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas with the worst socio-economic conditions serve as breeding places for it.
Pakistan’s dream of becoming a polio-free nation cannot come true until crucial steps are taken to ensure the accessibility of polio workers to children in restive areas.
The government, religious scholars, health experts, youth and media should also play their role in polio eradication campaigns in Pakistan and they must come forward to save the children from becoming a socioeconomic burden on the country.
Syed Fazl-e-Haider is a development analyst in Pakistan