Jul 31, 2014

Taliban In Pakistan Derail World Polio Eradication

Taliban In Pakistan Derail World Polio Eradication

A health worker gives a child the polio vaccine in Bannu, Pakistan, June 25. More than a quarter-million children in Taliban-controlled areas are likely to miss their immunizations.
A health worker gives a child the polio vaccine in Bannu, Pakistan, June 25. More than a quarter-million children in Taliban-controlled areas are likely to miss their immunizations.
A. Majeed/AFP/Getty Images
Last January Salma Jaffar was shot while she was going door to door in Karachi, giving children drops of the polio vaccine.
"Even when they took out the pistol, I couldn't understand why he was taking out the gun," Jaffar says of the two men who pulled up on a motorcycle and started shooting at the vaccination team.
Salma Jaffar was shot four times while vaccinating children in Karachi last January. She survived. But more than 60 polio workers have been killed in Pakistan over the past two years.i
Salma Jaffar was shot four times while vaccinating children in Karachi last January. She survived. But more than 60 polio workers have been killed in Pakistan over the past two years.
Jason Beaubien/NPR
"But when he opened fire, that is when I thought it was the end of the life," she says. "My first thought was that I won't be able to see my children again."
Jaffar was shot four times: twice in her arm and twice in her chest. She spent the next three weeks in an intensive care unit.
Three of her colleagues weren't as fortunate and died in the attack. They are among the more than 60 polio workers who have been killed since the Pakistani Taliban banned polio immunization in 2012.
Today the militant group continues to threaten to kill not only vaccinators but also parents who get their children immunized. That threat has had a chilling effect on anti-polio efforts nationwide. And it completely halted vaccination drives in some Taliban-controlled areas. It's in these places that the crippling virus has come roaring back — and threatened to stymie global efforts to wipe out polio.
The worldwide campaign to eradicate polio has been going on for more than two decades. It has cost more than $10 billion. Now the success of the campaign hinges on whether Pakistan can control the virus.
At its peak in the 1950s, polio paralyzed about 350,000 people a year around the world. This year, so far, there have been only 128 cases recorded. Ninety-nine of them have been in Pakistan. And the South Asian nation is the only country in the world where the number of polio cases is rising significantly.
The edict by the Islamic militants to ban immunization was in response to the CIA's setting up a fake hepatitis vaccination campaign in Pakistan. The covert operation was part of an attempt by the U.S. spy agency to verify whether Osama bin Laden was holed up in the city of Abbottabad.
A polio vaccination booth in Rawalpindi.i
A polio vaccination booth in Rawalpindi.
Jason Beaubien/NPR
The polio problem in Pakistan right now is a result of the CIA's actions in the country, saysMufti Muneeb Ur Rehman, a prominent and moderate cleric in Pakistan. He personally accepts the polio vaccine. He encourages people at his mosque to get their kids vaccinated.
"But there are certain areas in Pakistan where the people resist [the polio vaccine] because the CIA used the polio campaign for intelligence purposes," he says.
Like many Pakistanis, Ur Rehman erroneously says the CIA operation against bin Laden used a polio campaign for cover, even though it actually used a fake hepatitis B campaign. "The one who can use hepatitis for intelligence," he says, "they can use polio for intelligence."
And the CIA's actions were an insult to Pakistan, he says. As a result, more children are now being paralyzed by polio in Pakistan than anywhere else in the world.
Before the Taliban prohibited polio vaccinations, the country was on the verge of eliminating the disease. In 2012 it notched only 58 cases. "The whole thing just then got reversed when vaccinators started to be targeted and killed," says Elias Durry, who leads the World Health Organization's polio operations in Pakistan.
The Pakistani government is doing what it can to keep the outbreak from spilling out of the Taliban-controlled area and into the rest of the country, Durry says.
The Health Ministry runs mass immunization campaigns that involve about 200,000 vaccinators, trying to reach millions of kids. There are polio roadblocks on major highways, where vaccinators immunize kids passing through in cars and trucks. Vaccinators also ply bus stations, railway stops and even airports immunizing any child that appears to be under age 5.
But all this hasn't been enough to wipe out the disease. As long as the Taliban blocks vaccinations in the territory it controls, Durry says, the virus can't be defeated either in Pakistan or the world.
The immunization ban is in the North and South Waziristan districts, along the Afghanistan border. Officials think about 250,000 kids there are missing their vaccinations.
In the regions under government control, the country is doing all the right things to curb the polio outbreak, Durry says. "But to win the war," he warns, "we have to be able to access children who are currently not available for vaccination."
And there’s no indication when the armed conflict between the Taliban and the government will subside — or when the Taliban will allow vaccinators to reach all the children of Pakistan.

Jul 26, 2014

Clerics demand accountability as Polio incidence grows


Updated a day ago
Polio vaccine.— File photo
Polio vaccine.— File photo
AN issue that has been over a decade in the making is now reaching critical levels. But not even that troubling reality has prodded the state and society into treating it with the necessary urgency and seriousness of purpose. A substantial period of time has passed since the World Health Organization placed Pakistan on the list of those poised to re-infect the world with polio. The country responded with an outpouring of good intentions from several government and administrative departments. Regrettably, the hollowness of their promises is now in evidence. In addition to the regular discovery of new polio cases in areas such as Karachi and Fata, Thursday saw the virus take crippling effect in Balochistan, too — until this case, Balochistan had held out hope that it would remain the sole polio-free province. The same day, two more children were reported to have fallen victim to the virus in Fata. The steepness of the trajectory of this crippling disease is obvious from the numbers: so far this year, the countrywide tally of polio cases stands at 102; during the same period last year, there were only 21. During 2012, 58 new cases were reported; the following year, this figure stood at 93.
In this context, the statement by a group of clerics in Peshawar on Thursday is of much significance. A gathering of over 100 scholars expressed concern over the issue and demanded accountability of all those who have been associated with the eradication programme since the early ’90s. Some might be tempted to take this as somewhat ironic, given that the campaign to convince people to resist the administration of the vaccine was started by certain mischief-making members of the clergy itself. Nevertheless, the hard fact is that the controversy over polio immunisation has taken on religious hues and, as such, scholars can play a vital role in reversing the trend. Thursday’s gathering paid a well-deserved tribute to the fact that over 7,000 clerics participated in a Unicef-sponsored polio communication programme from 2009 to 2012, as a result of which vaccination refusals reportedly went down in parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. That said, Pakistan’s state and society need to recognise that polio is first and foremost an urgent domestic concern, and all stakeholders in the future — be they clerics, politicians or others that possess the power to mould public opinion — are still far from putting in all-out efforts to eradicate the scourge.
Published in Dawn, July 26th, 2014.

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