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Pakistan: Polio Vaccination Ban Affects 240,000 Children

Close to a quarter million innocent children are at risk of catching the crippling disease, due to a recent ban on polio inoculation by the Taliban in Pakistan's FATA (Federally Administrated Tribal Areas) region.

Pakistan Taliban chief Hafiz Gul Bahadur has banned polio vaccination in protest against US espionage and drone attacks in Waziristan, FATA.

Pakistan is one of three countries left in the world, where polio is endemic. The latest anti-polio campaign launched by the government of Pakistan targets 35 million children under the age of five. With the recent ban, the health of 160,000 children from South Waziristan, and 80,000 children from North Waziristan hangs in the balance.

The Pakistan Taliban are suspicious this anti-polio campaign is as actual a cover for espionage. In May 2011, a fake anti-hepatitis immunisation campaign was launched by the US through a Pakistani physician Dr. Afridi  in Abbotabad, Pakistan, which led to the eventual capture of Osama bin Laden.

In a handout distributed by Mullah Nazir, a spokesman of Pakistan Taliban, he condemned the immunisation campaign because “infidel forces are using media, education and development as a tool to gag Muslims.”

A health worker administers the polio-vaccine drops to a child during a three-day anti-polio campaign in Chaman. Image by Owais Aslam Ali. Copyright Demotix

In a jirga (tribal meeting) held by 200 Pashtun leaders on 18 July 2012, the ban was supported as a protest against US drone attacks. The chief of Turikhel tribe, Malak Mamoor Khan said drones are more dangerous than the polio virus, because a ‘child rarely dies of polio while hundreds of children have died due to drones.’

Another development that has been a major blow to the Pakistan polio eradication campaign was the recent attack on a World Health Organization doctor from Ghana, who was inoculating children in the outskirts of Karachi, a southern port city of Pakistan. Two gunmen fired at his vehicle, as he was leaving a heavily ethnic Pashtun slum (where some of the inhabitants have fled violence from Pakistan's north-west and FATA region). He was severely injured, but survived. It was not clear whether the doctor's attack in Karachi, has any connection with the tribal and Taliban decree banning polio vaccinations in the FATA areas.

Apart from this, local newspaper report that a polio vaccination team was beaten up in the capital Islamabad, and bullets were fired at a team in Jacobabad, Sindh. In another development reported from Muzaffargarh, a district in Punjab, a local cleric declared the polio campaign to be anti-Islam and anti-Pakistan.

Mirza aptly comments on such attitude from the clergy:

“Instead of declaring Jihad against illiteracy, hunger and disease it is ironic that the mullah are declaring jihad against vaccination. Yet again police could not arrest the mullah, what is new? No mullah is ever punished for their wrongdoings and abuse of religion. No mullah is going to issue fatwa against him.”

A health worker administers the polio-vaccine drops to a child during a three-day anti-polio campaign in Chaman. Image by Owais Aslam Ali. Copyright Demotix

An anti-polio drive in the country makes many speechless. Ian Fairley comments on a post:

“Here we go again, grown men exercising their power over the women and chilren, brutality at its worst because they do it in the name of religion, put these hero's in front of proper men and they use the children as a shield to hide behind”

Some tweets consider extremist ideology to be an existential threat to Pakistan. Ali Abbas Zaidi tweets:

Salman tweets:

Aly writes:

On the other hand, UNICEF has hired Pakistan's star crickter Shahid Afridi in a fight against polio. Shahid Afridi is an ethnic Pashtun and has a large fan base amongst the community. He has joined Rotary's “This Close” campaign to support the fight against polio. Recently, Asifa Bhutto Zaradri, Pakistan's polio ambassador and the daughter of Pakistan's president, has also joined this campaign.

Eradication of polio endemic requires a joint collaboration between the government and the people. The clergy, commoners, and civil society must be taken on board and convinced about how important polio vaccination is for Pakistan's future.

Afridi vs Polio tweets:

According to statistics collected by the National Institute of Health Pakistan (NIHP) in 2009, 2010, and 2011 there were 116, 144, and 173 reported cases of polio respectively.

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