Religious scholars in three sensitive districts of Balochistan have managed to persuade parents to vaccinate their children thereby cutting down refusal rates by 80 per cent among the 60,000 families who had refused inoculation. This is good news indeed and it is hoped that all children can enjoy a polio-free life. But while the reduction in polio refusal cases is most necessary, involving religious scholars is a move that should be taken with a pinch of salt. Religion being interlinked with all spheres of public life is barely ever a positive development and can only provide short-term successes. Such initiatives also give mixed messages. While on one hand the state wants to crack down on madrassas, on the other, religious preachers are given an open space for influence.
Earlier, Maulana Samiul Haq, chief of Darul Uloom Haqqani in Akora Khattak, was given the task of countering the Taliban’s anti-vaccine campaign. This particular Darul Uloom has great influence among Taliban outfits and prior to Samiul Haq’s endorsement, he had opposed polio vaccinations on the grounds that the campaign had been used to kill Osama Bin Laden.
Furthermore, pinning down the presence of polio to mere refusals is problematic because the problem has been more of security and lack of access in certain areas. For instance, between 2012 and 2015, nearly 70 health workers were killed during a polio campaign. It is also important to remember that it was the Taliban who had banned polio campaigns in North Waziristan for over two years, which led to scores of children being left unvaccinated who contributed to a large majority of polio cases. Parents should be educated better and provided evidence that supports the need for polio vaccine.
Pakistan has made great strides in the fight against polio. Fourteen polio cases have been detected this year so far, down from 34 in 2015, and 296 in 2014, which was the darkest year for polio in Pakistan. The commitment shown by all authorities in fighting this battle needs to continue.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 28th, 2016.
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