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Unfortunately, eradicating the disease from Pakistan without Taliban cooperation seems a hugely daunting task given that the Islamist terror group operates with impunity in the mountainous terrain of Waziristan. As one Pakistani health official said, “going to these areas for a polio campaign would be tantamount to putting the lives of our staff in jeopardy.”
That hazardous assessment, sadly, is growing equally true for polio vaccinators working outside Taliban-controlled areas as a disturbingly large percentage of Pakistani Muslims seem to share the Taliban’s aversion to polio vaccinations, albeit for differing reasons.
In particular, many Pakistani parents, fearful that vaccination is either a US-led plot to sterilize Muslims or violates Islamic law, are refusing to let their children become vaccinated. According to one Pakistani government health official, an estimated 30,000 families across Pakistan refused polio vaccination during the latest national polio vaccination campaign.
Moreover, the efforts to prevent health workers from administering polio vaccinations are becoming increasingly violent and deadly, violence fueled in part by some Muslim clerics who have denounced the polio campaign to be anti-Islam. One cleric in Pakistan’s Punjab province, Maulvi Ibrahim Chisti, recently called for a jihad against polio vaccination teams.
Recent examples of that jihad include a community health worker shot and killed in Karachi; a polio vaccination team beaten up in the capital Islamabad; two workers of WHO wounded when their vehicle was shot at by armed men in Karachi; and a polio vaccinator brutally beaten by a family in Islamabad for trying to administer anti-polio drops to their child.
Yet, despite the rise in violence against polio vaccinators, there are those who remain confident that the Pakistani public will eventually be won over to the side of preventative medicine.
One of those voices is Shahnaz Wazir Ali, Special Assistant to Pakistan’s Prime Minister, who said, “It is our religious duty and obligation to protect our children against disease and disability,” adding that over 730 Muslim scholars and religious leaders “have pledged their support to the cause.”
One of those religious leaders was Mufti Abdul Qayyum, a one-time staunch anti-polio vaccine advocate who had once said in an interview that the polio vaccine was “haraam” (sinful), noting that he would rather have his own child “crippled by polio than take her forward for administration of a haraam vaccine.”
Those words became bitterly prophetic as Qayyum’s own 23 month-old niece recently fell victim to polio, an event which transformed the Islamic scholar into a devoted advocate of polio immunization, one who reportedly has now administered anti-polio drops to children in his city of Quetta as well as to his own one year-old son.
Unfortunately, Mufti Qayyum’s conversion came at the expense of his niece, who now faces lifelong paralysis, a fate now possibly faced by the 250,000 Pakistani children without polio immunization who live under Taliban control.
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