PESHAWAR, Dec 23: The recent aggressive campaign against anti-polio vaccination dates back to 2005 when Mullah Fazlullah, who later became a Taliban leader in Swat, began ferocious anti-vaccination drive on his illegal FM radio, according to officials.
The killing of three health workers in Peshawar and five in Karachi is the outcome of the Taliban’s prolonged opposition to child immunisation.
Mullah Fazlullah carried out the anti-polio campaign long before militants ruled Swat from 2007 and 2009.
He used to deliver sermons from his mosque asking the people to stay away from vaccination, saying taking medicine for any disease was against Islam before the disease had infected someone, a senior official at provincial Expanded Programme on Immunisation told Dawn.
According to the official, the sermons swayed many in the area as Fazlullah commanded respect at that time.
Towards 2007, Fazlullah became commander of outlawed Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan’s Swat chapter and his opposition to anti-polio vaccination became a Taliban’s slogan. Everywhere in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the adjacent Federally Administered Tribal Areas, Taliban came out to oppose vaccination.
In early 2008, polio immunisation became a highly-politicised issue and Taliban began to stop the people from vaccinating their children, saying immunisation was a ploy used by the US and its western allies in their war against terrorism to render Muslim children infertile and impotent.
The official said the message swayed the people, who already had doubts about anti-polio campaigns, especially in light of the use of limousine cars by UN agencies. He said the people were suspicious of why the UN was so interested in polio eradication ignoring other diseases of children.
Another official said it was surprising that Taliban were silent about vaccination against other disease like measles, diphtheria and pneumonia. He said the militant outfit had singled out polio due to the high-profile anti-polio campaigns in which banners and placards were displaced during the inauguration.
The official said in August this year, Taliban banned anti-polio vaccination campaigns in North and South Waziristan agencies, asking the US to stop drone strikes because they had realised that the high-profile campaign had caught the world’s attention after Pakistan became the world’s highest polio endemic country in 2011 with 198 cases.
He said even before 2008, the people had been demanding pavement of roads, provision of clean drinking water and electricity in return for vaccination of their children because they were under misconception that immunisation was not that important for their children’s health.
The official said since then, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Fata had been recording around 50,000 immunisation refusal cases, while 100,000 children missed the vaccination during the campaigns.
Experts believe they have been suggesting that campaigns should not be run but polio vaccine should be administered to children like other vaccines at fixed centres in hospitals.
According to them, the country saw some anti-polio success before Taliban began opposing vaccination and the country had reached close to eradication with only 28 nationwide cases in 2005. The polio cases totaled 117 in 2008, 89 in 2009, 144 in 2010 and 198 in 2011.
An official said this year, majority of the 20 cases from Fata and 11 of the 25 cases in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa hadn’t been administered polio vaccine due to their parents’ refusal.
He said the massive campaign on print and electronic media had adversely affected the anti-polio campaign as the people though that why the UN was so concerned about a disease that had not hit the children yet, while it didn’t treat them for other diseases like hepatitis, diabetes and cancer.
Another official said if the government wanted better vaccination results, then it should immediately stop the ceremonial elegance and splendour and use of expensive vehicles on vaccination days to do away with the public’s misconception that why so much amount was being spent on a disease that was nor common priority.