What ails Pakistan’s polio eradication drive

Pakistan is striving for a polio-free status like India which has been removed from the list of countries where the disease is endemic. Recently, a four-member team from Pakistan visited Bihar to get first hand information on dealing with the polio virus. Rotarians S Shahab Balkhi and Mohammad Hanif Khilji, who were a part of the team, spoke to Alok Gupta on what impedes the country’s polio eradication mission 

By Alok Gupta
Published: Saturday 23 March 2013

imageWhy is the battle against polio so difficult in India and Pakistan?

India and Pakistan face the same set of problems in weeding out polio. There are many similarities but Bihar has done a commendable job in eradicating the polio virus. Our trip is a learning experience. India’s victory on polio is an inspiring lesson for us. The polio drive in Pakistan suffered many setbacks in the past few years. We are trying to catch up and be in the league of polio free nations.

What similarities do you see between India and Pakistan as far as polio eradication is concerned?

The similarities are religious sentiments, migration and difficult flood-prone zones. Both nations faced stiff opposition against polio drive. It was rumoured that few Islamic factions believe polio drops are against Islam. The Pashtuns in Quetta and Baluchistan were blamed for their anti-polio drops stand. The rumour that Islam is against administering polio drops is spread by few western groups. Mixing of polio with religion hampered polio eradication in both nations. Apart from religion, flood-prone areas in Bihar and Pakistan proved to be a drag on the polio mission. Look at the Kosi region of Bihar and Indus basin region of Pakistan, both regions pose the same challenges in eradicating polio. Floods cause polio virus to return again and again. Administering polio drops to kids in migrating families is also a big challenge. In Bihar, people migrate for jobs and in Pakistan people keep visiting Afghanistan for trade or meeting relatives.

Then why are various Islamic factions issuing fatwa against polio drive in both nations?

Some introspection is needed on this issue. One of the major factors is lack of awareness. Look at all the new methods of medical intervention for social change or betterment of life. There is religious debate by Christians on abortions rights in western countries. Vasectomy among men for population control was hampered by strange rumours. It was said that vasectomy affects stamina of a man.

Literacy rate in India and Pakistan is still low. We should raise the awareness of people who are deprived of education. Let me recount a personal experience; a maulvi in Baluchistan who was against polio drops found that one of his kids is suffering from polio. We immediately provided him medical facilities and made him aware about polio. Now, this maulvi has become a polio activist in the region. Factions that are issuing fatwa against polio drops should be made aware of the endemic disease. These groups are unaware of the facts about polio. A tolerant approach will help in the fight against polio.  
What are the other major challenges faced by Pakistan in eradicating Polio?

Terrorism, terrorism and terrorism. We would have made great progress against polio but bullets failed us. Killing of women polio workers was the biggest setback. It triggered massive nervousness among polio volunteers. We have gathered the guts and launched a special drive in terrorism-affected areas. Our polio volunteers working in extremely dangerous regions of Pakistan are being given protection. These volunteers are our heroes. They are braving the threat of terror to polio.

A series of killing of polio volunteers has been condemned severely by everyone in Pakistan. Government machinery is providing all possible help in the terrorism-affected regions of Pakistan. Apart from this, in the last few months, we are trying to spread the message that polio permanently damages the limbs of humans. It’s not like tuberculosis that is curable. 


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