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PAKISTAN: Polio, Taliban, and media

PAKISTAN: Polio, Taliban, and media

Moahhamd Nafees

Resistance to polio vaccination has been going through a constant phase of evolution in Pakistan, and with every passing day, it goes one notch up from its previous level involving people from conservative camps to enlightened ones as well. About six months ago, Maulvi Ibrahim Chishti of Muzaffargarh’s rural Khan Pur Bagga Sher area declared polio drops as ‘poison, un-Islamic’ and a ‘western conspiracy’ to render the population impotent. A few days later, tribal elders from 18 villages of North Waziristan decided to boycott polio vaccination, and then the Taliban warlord, Gul Bahadur, decreed that polio vaccination in North Waziristan would remain suspended until the US stopped drone attacks in the area. WHO immediately suspended its polio drive in the tribal areas and government of Pakistan silently accepted the loss of its writ in the area. The people from the remaining parts of Pakistan took it as a sign of the backwardness these remote areas of Pakistan are assumed to be infected of.

A month later, Dr Fosten Dido, a doctor associated with the WHO was shot at and wounded in Karachi on July 17, 2012. Within a week after this incident, Dr Muhammad Ishaq, working for the WHO on polio immunisation campaign, was shot dead at Al-Asif Square in Karachi. Both of these incidents took place in areas that are mostly populated by Afghan refugees. Once again, the militant minds of Afghan refugees and their backwardness were assumed to be behind these events. Nearly three months later, on October 16, 2012, a worker of a polio team was killed in Quetta, and on October 19, the most shocking news came reporting killings of five women polio workers in Pakistan, four in Karachi and one in Peshawar. In Karachi, the victims were targeted at three different locations (Orangi Town, Landhi, Baldia Ittehad Town) proving that militants working against polio campaign were not confined to tribal areas alone.

While militants carried out their bloodthirsty drive against the polio campaign in their own way, a covert indoctrination campaign went on side by side to make people believe that it was a western agenda against Muslims and they had to protect their children from it. In Multan, 84 families refused to get their children vaccinated last month for these very reasons.

Amidst these religious and conspiracy theories, a well-researched and argumentative column by Najma Sadeque appeared in a national daily on January 23, 2013, questioning efficacy of the vaccine and defending the stoppage of polio campaign. The arguments she built were different from what the Taliban and religious clergy used earlier. It was a step ahead of them as the target readers were different. She blamed government for conspicuously shying away from divulging the inconvenient information surrounding the polio vaccine. She even tried to convince that oral polio vaccine (OPV) is itself a carrier of poliovirus. OPV, according to her, is the original vaccine and used in the Third World because it is cheaper. The inactivated polio vaccine (IPV), in her opinion, is a newer risk-free vaccine, which the US and other industrialised countries started using after abandoning the previous one. She also made reference to the late Dr Maurice Hillman as the one who had discovered that the new virus had come about via the polio vaccine he had developed.

An indepth web search revealed that most of the contents of her column were half-true. It is WHO and not the government that has been the main driver of polio immunisation scheme in many countries and if a world level organisation is involved in conspiring against Pakistan or the Third World countries, it is a serious allegation that needs a solid proof. OPV is not the original vaccine as suggested by Sadeque, but one of the two vaccines that have been in use since late 1950s. IPV was the first vaccine developed by Dr Jonas Salk in 1955; OPV was developed later by Albert Sabin, and he got it registered in 1962.

According to the reports available, IPV, the first vaccine, had been effective 60-70 percent in poliovirus type 1 (PV1) cases, over 90 percent effective against PV2 and PV3, and 94 percent effective against the development of bulbar polio. The discovery of a virus in a polio vaccine was first discovered between 1959 and 1960 by Dr Bernice Eddy, and later Dr Benjamin Sweet and Dr Maurice Hillman — both Merck scientists — had discovered it in 1960. OPV was still in its trial phase when these discoveries were made. However, the vaccine found contaminated was IPV and not OPV. Barbara Loe Fisher, president and co-founder of the National Vaccine Information Centre, USA, admitted in September 2003 that Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine (IPV and not OPV) was contaminated with SV40. The biological properties of SV40 are consistent with a cancer-causing virus and not a polio-causing virus.

OPV was also suspected of having some contamination but its chances were very rare and it mostly occurred in areas of low coverage by OPV. A medical website claims that in 2009, WHO had found that 180 out of 42 million immunized children in Nigeria were paralysed by OPV caused poliovirus. Coincidently, Nigeria has a large Muslim minority that carries a fear to polio vaccine similar to what we find among some of Pakistanis. Having only 180 out 42 million children affected of this problem speaks a lot in favour of oral polio vaccine because no medicine is without any side effects and we always opt for those risks that are very few in percentage.

Talking against polio scheme is easier than developing a vaccine with zero risk factor. Creating negative media hype is easier than doing some research on children that are suspected of having developed vaccine-generated disease. Instead of saving children who are extremely vulnerable to a crippling disease we are trying to save those who are bent upon depriving them the only protection they currently have. Media should be very careful in dealing with issues that affect human lives. One little mistake can endanger many lives and no media person would probably like to see his/her hand in it. The latest news is that Karachi has lost its polio-free status thanks to negative propaganda against polio vaccine. Who shall the poor child blame for crippling his whole life — the religious preacher, the Taliban, or media?

ENDS

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