Pakistan’s fight against polio was dealt another blow when a six-month-old child became the latest victim of the anti-polio vaccination campaign that till now had mostly plagued the country’s tribal belt. What is most worrying is the fact that this campaign, which was initiated in the tribal agencies by Taliban commanders, now seems to have found its way to other parts of Pakistan too, with this latest case having surfaced in Mardan, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P). The total number of polio cases reported this year is now 29, most of them originating from K-P and Fata.
According to the father of the child, an influential religious family of the area, as well as local clerics, pressured residents into not letting vaccination teams immunise their children, propagating that the vaccines contained pig meat and caused infertility. This has so far resulted in 2,373 reported cases of refusals in the district. While many find it convenient to blame the CIA and Dr Shakil Afridi’s activities for this situation, one must remember that negative sentiments regarding polio vaccines existed even before Dr Afridi’s actions came to light. The government’s inability to impose its writ over large areas of the country, its unwillingness to take to task those who are playing with the future of our children, lack of schemes that inform people about the importance of polio vaccines and the Taliban insurgency in the tribal belt are the real reasons why Pakistan is one of the three countries where polio is still endemic.
Added to this is the role, or the lack of it, of our right wing leaders and ulema, many of whom acknowledge that polio vaccines are not un-Islamic. They have no trouble in conjuring up huge crowds in anti-US rallies but have failed to use even a fraction of this influence in convincing people to immunise their children against polio. The ultimate responsibility for this fast unfolding tragedy, however, lies with the government. If we want to eradicate polio, the state needs to extend its writ to the entire country and ensure that every child gets immunised.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 11th, 2012.