The scourge of Polio in Pakistan

Whilst following news about a recent outbreak of Measles in the United States, I came across this hilarious article ‘I’m an Anti-Braker’, which alludes to the anti-vaccine movement. Having worked in the Vaccines Division of a large global pharmaceutical company and experienced the benefits (and complications!) of vaccination personally, I must preface the rest of this blog entry with a caveat: I am most certainly pro-vaccinations.

I feel compelled to write about this topic, because my research is around inclusive education. I have worked with professionals who support children with a range of needs that vary across the spectrum – from mild to moderate, to the very severe and profound special needs – both short- and long-term in nature. It saddens me to know that thousands of children are inflicted with preventable diseases each year, simply because their parents do not believe in the unequivocal value of vaccinations. There are a variety of resources that you can explore about arguments from both sides of the coin: from scientifically researched articles to first -hand testimonies of parents to interactive data representations.

I particularly want to comment on the polio vaccination because I was recently in Pakistan, and was shocked and saddened to read items prevalent in the news on the daily basis there, about lady health workers being threatened and killed because “some Islamic militants accused health workers of acting as spies for the United States and claim that the vaccine makes children sterile”. Furthermore, cases such as the doctor who ran the fake vaccination operation that confirmed Osama Bin Laden’s presence in Pakistan for the CIA, gives such theories added validity. Indeed, despite the large degree of data evidence of the holistic benefits of vaccination (as colourfully illustrated in the example below, broken down state-wise in the USA) and ‘herd immunity‘, it is a sad fact that Pakistan is one of only three countries in the world where the crippling disease is once again endemic.

Thankfully, there is a The National Emergency Action Plan for Polio Eradication in place. However, frequent security concerns due to ethnic, religious and sectarian tensions affect the execution of the Plan on an almost daily basis. This unrest periodically occurs in other parts of the country, resulting in new cases being reported on a daily basis across Pakistan, and particularly in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

A recent article in the Guardian however, yields hope yet for this issue. Shahnaz Wazir Ali, a provincial co-ordinator for public health in Pakistan, says that “initiatives aimed at breaking down resistance… have achieved major breakthroughs.” Examples include the creation of 340 full-time paid positions for women from communities ethnically linked to the high-risk FATA and surrounding areas; local community and religious leaders being courted to ensure they support the polio programme and can argue against the rumours; and immunisation efforts at transit points into the city such as railway stations and major roads.

Such evidence is heartening for the eradication of polio and people’s continued confidence in the power of vaccinations. Indeed, I have an indomitable hope, as asserted by Aziz Memon, who leads Rotary International’s anti-polio campaign in Pakistan, that the children of Pakistan will “walk, not crawl” towards their futures.

Saneeya Qureshi © 2015

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