The polio virus has crippled and killed hundreds of thousands of children. Starting in 1957, the disease was finally, decisively eradicated (thank you, Jonas Salk) — except in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria.
Those countries are plagued by sectarian Muslim violence, and unfortunately, Muslim fundies tend to be anti-vaxers. They’ve gotten it into their heads that polio-fighting programs are really Western-led campaigns to make Muslims infertile. As a result, terrorist groups have waged a long intimidation campaign against medical teams and even against families looking to get their children vaccinated. In recent years, dozens of vaccination workers have been assassinated.
Ground zero for the global battle against polio is Peshawar, Pakistan. Last month, the World Health Organization declared it “the largest reservoir of endemic poliovirus in the world.” Part of the problem is the city’s inadequate infrastructure, with open sewers that promote rampant drinking-water contamination. But just as big an obstacle to public health is the Taliban, whose members will stop at nothing to thwart the vaccination teams.
Peshawar is now the main hub for new cases of the illness, and it’s beginning to affect other countries.
Within the neighboring tribal areas, Peshawar acts as a central exchange and an “amplifier” for a disease carried in and out of the city by the tens of thousands of people who pass through every day, including a huge population of refugees who fled Afghanistan in the 1980s.
“The problem with Peshawar is that we always have cases there,” said Bilal Ahmed, a senior Unicef official in the city. “In other districts the virus comes and goes, but it never leaves Peshawar, which tells us it’s the source.” …
Cases from around the world, including China and Syria, have been genetically matched to the Peshawar strain.
Pakistani authorities have decided to make a new push to give polio vaccine drops to virtually every child under five, going as far as bribing parents with a ten-dollar payment for each child that completes the vaccination process. The drops must be administered once a week, for multiple weeks in a row. That’s a huge and risky undertaking:
It requires 8,000 health workers to hit the streets with the aim of vaccinating nearly 800,000 children in a single day.
Four thousand police officers will escort them to protect them against the gunmen who have killed scores of polio vaccinators around the country in recent years.
During vaccination sessions, entire neighborhoods are put into lockdown, with motorbikes [the preferred transportation of Pakistani assassins] banned from the streets. …
Polio teams carry booklets of “fatwas”, or religious decrees, by famous scholars who argue there is nothing wrong with the drops.
Campaign officials say that to banish the disease from Peshawar, they’ll need to reach 97 percent of all the children in the region — but there are still lots of parents who, on vaccination days, deliberately keep their kids inside, hidden away from the life-saving treatment.
The CIA has something to do with the distrust of the vaccine, too. In its quest for Osama bin Laden, the agency used a Pakistani doctor called Shakil Afridi as an informer near Bin Laden’s hiding place in Abbottabad. Afridi’s cover: he was the administrator of a hepatitis vaccination campaign… that turned out to be fake. The scheme led to bin Laden’s demise but did nothing to boost the population’s confidence in the motives of vax teams.
For that reason, and others, naysayers are numerous. Take Amir Zaada, a father of three and an anti-vaxer. He told the Guardian:
“Look at them. They are fine and in good health. Only God keeps them safe and healthy.”
With that common attitude, more kids are sure to die for lack of a few cheap, simple drops.
(Image via Shutterstock)