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Pakistan: Taliban’s opposition to the polio vaccination drive etc

1 August 2012

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The News on Sunday, 29 July 2012

Growing polio challenges

Propaganda by religious elements, misconception about the vaccination drive and growing corruption make polio-free Pakistan a distant dream

by Mushtaq Yusufzai

The nationwide campaign involving over 300,000 personnel against polio has become so controversial that even educated parents in urban areas like Peshawar and Mardan are refusing their children to be administered polio drops.

Around 19,000 parents in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) refused to vaccinate their children during a recent three-day National Immunization Days (NIDs) campaign. It is shameful, as the number of refusals went up from 11,000 of last year to 19,000, despite the hiring of highly-paid union council communication officers (UCCO), hundreds of social mobilisers and district support officers for KPK.

These highly-paid people were supposed to persuade parents to vaccinate their offsprings against polio, but it proved a failure as those selected for the purpose lacked the skills required for the job.

“Instead of selecting people on the basis of their education, they should have recruited locals based on their experience and skill to mobilise parents,” a senior member of a foreign-funded project says.

Dr Jan Baz Afridi, deputy director Expanded Programme on Immunization (EPI), says some parents termed polio drops an un-Islamic practice while others felt it was a conspiracy of the West to infertile Pakistani men. And in the tribal areas, the Taliban linked it to the drone attacks.

Despite attempts made by the international donors, Pakistani authorities failed to vaccinate more than 240,000 children in the tribal agencies of North Waziristan and South Waziristan and other parts of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata). In North Waziristan and South Waziristan, the regional Taliban groups had imposed a ban on anti-polio immunisation campaign as a mark of protest against the US drone attacks.

Hafiz Gul Bahadur, who is the Taliban chief in North Waziristan, banned anti-polio vaccination campaign on June 16 until drone strikes are halted. Around 160,000 children couldn’t be vaccinated there due to the ban.

“Until the drone attacks are stopped, our ban on polio campaign would continue in Waziristan. The drones proved more lethal and dangerous for people than polio,” Ahmadullah Ahmadi, a spokesman for Hafiz Gul Bahadur, tells TNS.

Similar is the case in the neighbouring South Waziristan Agency where local Taliban, led by Maulvi Nazeer, banned the campaign, depriving 80,000 children of anti-polio drops. The Taliban argued they had taken the decision in the larger interest of the tribespeople, particularly children.

The government had set a target of 1.06 million children in Fata to be vaccinated during the three-day campaign but it dropped to 754,000. Besides North Waziristan and South Waziristan, where one polio case each has been reported this year so far, the government was unable to reach out to hundreds of children in parts of Khyber, Orakzai, Kurram, Mohmand and Bajaur tribal regions due to poor security measures and lack of writ of the state.

The situation in Khyber Agency is said to be the worst as out of 23 polio cases reported this year in Pakistan, nine were detected in Khyber Agency. There were also reports that the government had started back-door negotiations with the Taliban leaders through senior clerics and officials of the political administration.

There are various factors which hampered this noble mission against the viral disease in the country, including malicious propaganda against the immunisation campaign from religious elements, misconceptions associated with the vaccination drive and growing corruption within the institutions involved in the campaign. And then there is poor surveillance, assessment and monitoring system.

Pakistan is currently among the three unfortunate countries where polio virus still exists — the two others are war-ravaged Afghanistan and Nigeria.

The doctors and health workers engaged in polio immunisation are now seriously worried about the anti-polio drive. They feel the fake campaign launched by Dr Shakeel Afridi in Abbottabad to help CIA track down Osama bin Laden has made their job more difficult and controversial.

Pakistani officials say since Dr Shakeel Afridi has never been part of WHO or Unicef, therefore the WHO and Unicef should have cleared their position on this issue in time. “The story of Dr Shakeel appeared in the Guardian in June 2011 about his running of fake polio campaign, but the WHO and Unicef remained silent for almost a year, which was damaging for the fight against polio,” a senior official associated with polio eradication programme tells TNS.

Also, the influx of foreigners is another reason behind poor immunisation.

Dr Mohammad Rafiq, Unicef’s focal person for Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Fata, is of the opinion that polio is still a big problem in Pakistan. “If one polio case is diagnosed that means the virus is existing in 200 other houses of the neighbourhood,” he tells TNS.

P.S.

The above article from The News on Sunday is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use