The common denominator behind the disease's global hotspots.
The Pakistani Taliban has banned UN health workers from administering polio vaccine to almost 250,000 children living in South and North Waziristan, the Taliban-controlled region along the Afghan-Pakistan border.
Despite the near eradication of polio worldwide -- having been reduced from over 350,000 cases in 1988 to less than 700 in 2011 -- Pakistan remains one of three countries, where the disease still remains endemic.
Yet, when the government of Pakistan recently launched a national three-day polio vaccination campaign targeting 34 million Pakistani children, its efforts to reach a quarter million children living in South and North Waziristan were rebuffed by the Taliban.
According to Taliban leaders, the UN vaccinators from the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF were really not health workers on a mission to protect vulnerable children from the dreaded viral disease, but rather US spies trying to locate new Taliban targets for American drone strikes.
Despite the absurdity of that charge, it should be noted that the Taliban view of vaccination campaigns of any kind had become somewhat jaundiced after it learned the United States had used a fake anti-hepatitis immunization campaign that helped lead to the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011.
So, given that lesson, an edict was issued by Pakistan Taliban chief Hafiz Gul Bahadur that banned the polio vaccination campaign in South and North Waziristan “as long as drone strikes are not stopped.”
According to Bahadur, the Taliban wasn’t in need of American “well-wishers who spend billions to save children from polio…while, on the other hand, the same well-wishers … kills hundreds of innocent tribesmen, including old women and children by unleashing numerous drone attacks.”
The Taliban’s decision was heartedly endorsed by 200 Waziristan tribal leaders, one of whom, Malak Mamoor Khan, said the drones were far more dangerous than the polio virus, because a “child rarely dies of polio while hundreds of children have died due to drones.”
Of course, Khan neglected to point out the heavy contributions the Pakistani Taliban has made to increase the mortality rate of Pakistani children, especially its fondness for using children as human explosives.
After all the Taliban and its Islamist allies in the region have long used Waziristan as an area in which to construct and operate a slew of suicide training facilities, death factories that have trained over 5,000 Pakistani children, many as young as eight, as suicide bombers.
In fact, the Pakistani jihadists' enthusiasm for using children as human ordinance can be witnessed by the fact that of the 2,488 incidents of terrorism in Pakistan in the last two years -- which have claimed the lives of 3,169 people -- most were the result of suicide bombings conducted by underage terrorists.
So, it shouldn’t surprise then that the jihadists have now refused to inoculate children under its control from an acute viral infection that can lead to permanent paralysis and, in some cases, death.
Perhaps equally less surprising is that the one common thread that seems to link the three countries where polio remains endemic -- Afghanistan and Nigeria being the two others -- is that they almost exclusively occur in Muslim areas that are home to anti-Western and anti-American insurgencies.
In Nigeria, for example, Muslim clerics in the country’s predominantly Muslim north have long tried to block UN immunizations of children, which they consider nothing more than an orchestrated Western-led plot to depopulate the Muslim populace through vaccines laced with HIV and sterilization chemicals.
Those efforts to block vaccinations have since been aided by the support of Nigeria’s al-Qaeda-linked Islamist terror group Boko Haram, support which has helped lead to a four-fold national increase in polio, with the added bonus that the disease is now spreading to neighboring Niger, Mali and Ivory Coast.
In fact, like Nigeria, there is concern that polio may now be spreading outside of Pakistan, a concern bolstered by the fact that in late 2011, the World Health Organization traced China’s first polio outbreak in ten years back to Pakistan.
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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