She was the first child in Pakistan to be administered polio drops by her mother, and former premier, Benazir Bhutto. Today, at 18, she is Pakistan’s goodwill ambassador for polio eradication.
In an exclusive interview with The Express Tribune, the first detailed one to any media, a resolute Aseefa Bhutto-Zardari vowed to carry forward the mission, and stand up against forces that have politicised the anti-polio campaign.
Some Taliban factions recently imposed a ban on the immunisation programme in the tribal areas, linking its resumption to the halt in US drone strikes.
“We would not allow them to disrupt the anti-polio campaign,” Aseefa said. “By administering polio drops to her own children, my mother set a precedent for all parents in the country,” she added.
“My mother left a great vision … and I will give my best to carry her legacy to make Pakistan a polio-free country,” she added.
Polio is a crippling disease and the government will leave no stone unturned in making Pakistan a polio-free country, Aseefa said, citing the recently inaugurated National Polio Emergency Plan signed by the president.
Speaking about the misconceptions regarding the polio campaign in Pakistan, especially the religious opposition, Aseefa said that polio eradication campaigns have faced such challenges in other countries, such as Nigeria and pushed the programme back by five years.
She added, though, that when religious leaders are engaged and are shown fatwas and references calling for saving children from this disease, they become strong advocates for the cause.
“We are collaborating with the ministry of religious affairs and have brought on board over 730 ulema who have put their weight behind the campaign,” she said.
The entire Muslim world has eradicated this disease except Pakistan and Afghanistan, she said, suggesting that Saudi Arabia can play a key role in this regard.
The Imam-e-Ka’aba can make an appeal to that effect, she said, adding that Islam calls for protecting the vulnerable and saving humanity from diseases.
“The worst thing one can do is to drag politics in this issue which affects the health and well being of our children,” Aseefa said. She has recently stated that certain political groups in the country are against polio vaccination campaigns.
“Let us all, as a nation, be united for the sake of our own children,” she said.
Aseefa termed the inaccessibility in parts of Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) a major issue in the eradication campaign. The region continues to report the highest number of polio cases in Pakistan.
The government is working closely with the armed forces in running campaigns whenever it finds a window of opportunity, she said.
Army field hospitals are being used to reach the children and there is a fire-walling or transit strategy in place to cover children on the move, she added.
She said she is in constant contact with all stakeholders, including the tribal leadership in Fata and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.
“As an ambassador, I deem it extremely important to thank all political and religious forces of the country that have helped me in conveying the message against polio across the country,” she added.
Aseefa also tried to dispel the impression that funds for the polio drive are received and consumed by the federal government.
The prime minister’s special assistant, Shahnaz Wazir Ali, who was by Aseefa’s side during the interview, said the network comprises 220,000 employees who work 365 days a year against polio.
To run the functions, Gates Foundation and the Japanese government have donated generously, $45 million and $61 million respectively, routed through the World Bank to agencies in Pakistan who work in collaboration with the World Health Organisation’s technical teams, Ali added.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 10th, 2012.