News on the polio eradication front remains disappointing although reports indicate there has been a significant decline in the number of reported cases. During the recent days, two new cases came to light in Charsadda and Peshawar. The victims apparently caught poliovirus in the nearby Fata, which remains inaccessible to vaccination teams. Some 200,000 children in North and South Waziristan are said to be at risk of contracting the disease because the Taliban militants in the region have banned polio vaccination.
The situation is particularly bad in Khyber Agency's Bara tehsil which has remained out of bounds for vaccination teams. Sadly but unsurprisingly, out of 13 polio cases reported so far in Fata 10 happened in Bara. Unless these children are vaccinated, Pakistan will remain one of the world's three polio endemic countries - the other two being Afghanistan and Nigeria.
Speaking at a meeting on "Identifying the impediments to polio eradication in Pakistan" in Islamabad the other day, Special Adviser to the Prime Minister, Shahnaz Wazir Ali, said that misinformation about the safety of the polio vaccine and its side effects had prevented the drive from reaching all children. It has been almost three years since the Taliban stopped the immunisation drive, saying it was a Western scheme aimed at rendering their children infertile to reduce the population of Muslims. This they may have done out of plain ignorance, or due to fear of hostile infiltration in the guise of immunisation teams. Whatever the reason, the idea has caught on in Quetta and parts of Karachi. Gunmen opened fire last July on a vehicle carrying a WHO doctor in Gadap Town, injuring him and his driver. Vaccination campaign there has been restarted after a brief halt, but security concerns remain. Media awareness efforts seem to have had some success in countering misinformation. An indication to that effect comes out from a recent Taliban offer to allow vaccination in return for a stop to drone strikes. There obviously is no connection between the two issues.
But the offer seems to suggest that there is a growing realisation now among the Taliban militants that polio vaccine is meant only to help protect children from a debilitating disease, and is not part of some sinister anti-Muslim plan. A sustained public awareness campaign, especially TV commercial featuring a world cricket star, Shahid Afridi (ethnically a Pashtoon), participation in it via a TV, must help dispel misinformation. At least two other steps are in order: one, the political agent for the Khyber Agency ought to use all available means to take advantage of the militants' somewhat softening position and persuade them to allow vaccination. Secondly, the government should consider integrating polio vaccination with the general health services. That would allow immunisation without attracting unnecessary attention, and resultant controversy and resistance.