In the last year, Pakistan has made Herculean efforts to finally eradicate the polio virus, and at least potentially the goal of eradication by year-end is in sight. There is however a stumbling block and it is the resistance to vaccination on religious grounds that is proving hard to get over. The Islamic Advisory Group (IAG) for polio eradication has proposed intensifying its efforts after research has revealed that 50 per cent of refusals of vaccination in polio campaigns countrywide were religion-based. Families were convinced that there were undesirable particles in the vaccine or that vaccination was in some way un-Islamic despite their willingness to allow their children to be immunised against other common and often fatal childhood ailments.
On the plus side, this is a Muslim organisation specifically set up to tackle a Muslim problem. It was organised in 2013 after it was clear that the only two countries in the world to have failed to conquer polio were Pakistan and Afghanistan, and that both represented a threat to the herd immunity of virtually every other state worldwide, or wherever Pakistan and Afghan nationals who were not vaccinated travelled to. Also good news is that refusals have dropped from one per cent to 0.05 per cent in the last three years, suggesting that countervailing arguments have traction and are effective. That said, there are still around 20,000 refusals in every campaign, and there is now a standard operating procedure that in case of refusal one of the 787 religious support persons connected to the polio drive visit the family to try to convince them of the error of their beliefs. This is a solid, down-to-earth, practical intervention that we strongly support. The IAG at a recent meeting was unanimous on the need to increase the intensity of interventions with refusing families. There is another campaign on the near horizon and the regional director of the WHO has commented positively on the role of the IAG during a recent visit to Pakistan. The eradication of polio in Pakistan is possible and now well within the grasp of those fighting it and they deserve the support of all of us.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 8th, 2016.