The United Nations’ polio eradication campaign in Pakistan has virtually ground to a halt. A string of attacks by unidentified persons on health workers administering polio drops to children has left nine of them dead in Karachi.
The Taliban and other Islamist groups have long opposed the polio eradication campaign claiming that it is a western conspiracy to render Muslims infertile. The needle of suspicion thus points in their direction. The government has suspended the polio campaign in the entire Sind province.
Extreme ignorance underlies opposition to the polio campaign. Uttar Pradesh once confronted this problem too, when Muslim clerics spread rumours urging people to ooppose anti-polio vaccination. The fallout was deadly; an overwhelming majority of children afflicted with polio in UP are from the Muslim community.
However, the government spread awareness and involved progressive clerics to spread the message. The result is clear. India today is almost polio-free.
Pakistan must draw on India’s experience and resist bullying. It needs to step up an awareness campaign and accelerate its polio eradication efforts. It should provide robust protection for health workers. It has made remarkable progress in fighting polio, with the number of cases which stood at 20,000 in 1994 down to 56 today. It is on the brink of eliminating polio. Just when it has entered the last mile, obscurantist sections are undermining the war against polio.
The Taliban and others, which have been obstructing the anti-polio campaign in Afghanistan and Pakistan, need to take a leaf out of the book of other insurgent groups. Even at the height of the civil war, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam put their fighting on pause for a day or two to facilitate the polio vaccination process. Is that too much to ask of the Taliban and its affiliates?
However, the role of the Americans in precipitating the current crisis must not be ignored. The CIA used administration of polio vaccine as a ploy to gain entry to Osama bin Laden’s hideout and to draw DNA samples from family members. This infuriated the religious radicals and might have pushed them to strike now. The US’ short-sighted strategy in taking further its ‘war against terrorism’ has crippled the world’s war on polio.