When asked about the utility of the polio vaccine, Mirdaat, an eight-year-old Afghan waste picker calls it “an American conspiracy to wipe out the Muslim race”.
He holds the same opinion about blood screening for hepatitis. “Health workers will sell our blood to America. There is honour in Pakhtun blood. It cannot be sold.”
Eight other little waste pickers accompanying Mirdaat nod their heads in agreement.
After a controversial CIA-funded hepatitis B campaign, the polio vaccination drive in the Pakhtun-dominated localities of Karachi – where many Taliban militants are holed up – has suffered a serious setback.
So much so, that the CIA’s campaign to ensnare Osama Bin Laden was misconstrued as a polio vaccination drive.
Since mid-July last year, 17 health workers and five policemen involved in anti-polio campaigns have been killed and 14 others wounded by militants in 25 attacks across the country.
In December, five female vaccinators were shot dead in Karachi and Peshawar.
On May 13, Abdul Waheed, a social activist, was gunned down after he began a polio eradication campaign at his school. The campaign was hurriedly wrapped up.
Pakistan remains one of the three endemic countries for polio, along with Afghanistan and Nigeria. However, despite security threats, the country has made significant progress towards polio eradication in the last 18 months, according to a recently published report, “End Polio Pakistan”, by the WHO and Unicef.
There were 46 polio cases reported in Pakistan this year, 34 in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) and seven in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Both areas are affected by militancy and military operations. In Sindh, four cases were reported this year.
The polio virus infects only human beings therefore it cannot survive in an area where all inhabitants are vaccinated.
A case was reported recently wherein a minor girl in Gadap Town had contracted polio despite being vaccinated.
A child needs to be administered polio drops in every round of vaccination to strengthen immunity.
“Some children develop immunity after five or six doses. Most need as many as 10 doses. Where children are malnourished, more doses are needed,” it was stated in the Unicef report.
Considering the levels of malnourishment in Pakistan, which according to the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, affect 48 percent of the population, parents should never miss a polio drive.
Many Islamic scholars and religious institutions have endorsed the vaccine, terming it halal. They include the Darul Uloom Deoband India, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, the International Union for Muslim Scholars, and the imams of Masjid al-Aqsa in Jerusalem and Al-Azhar Masjid in Cairo.
Moreover, all hajj pilgrims are now required to be vaccinated against polio.
Abdullah Bukhari, an elder of the Afghan Basti near Sabzi Mandi, gives an open invitation to health workers.
“We are aware of the health concerns that involve our people. If polio vaccinators face any hurdles, they are free to contact me. I will personally accompany them to ensure their safety.”
October 24 is marked as World Polio Day