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Imran picks up polio gauntlet

Updated December 17, 2013
After entering politics, Pakistan Tehreek-Insaf leader Imran Khan has worked assiduously at building up an image as a politician focusing on political issues. — File photo
After entering politics, Pakistan Tehreek-Insaf leader Imran Khan has worked assiduously at building up an image as a politician focusing on political issues. — File photo

ONCE, he was known as the sportsman who put his weight behind public welfare issues.

After entering politics, though, Pakistan Tehreek-Insaf (PTI) leader Imran Khan has worked assiduously at building up an image as a politician focusing on political issues. Since his party swept to victory in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the May elections, perhaps the single most prominent issue on his agenda has been drone attacks.

But on Friday, Mr Khan vowed to personally spearhead the polio vaccination campaign. His statement came in the wake of the killings of polio workers and guards, and India’s recent decision to disallow travellers from Pakistan from entering the country unless proof of polio immunisation was provided.

Does this statement indicate a zeroing-in of Imran Khan and the PTI’s attention towards an issue that cuts right to the heart of the province’s — and country’s — future?

Asked by Dawn, Mr Khan said: “No one should ever be put at risk of being disabled when it can be avoided by the simple act of feeding polio-prevention drops to the child. If we want to safeguard the health of our future generation and avoid Pakistanis from being prevented from travelling abroad due to the prevalence of polio in Pakistan, we must make sure that all our children receive polio-prevention medication.”

Two strands of challenges must be delineated here. The first is that the strain of the virus found in several parts of the country has been established in most cases to have originated from Fata — which, for several reasons, constitutes a no-go territory for vaccination teams. The spokesperson for Unicef’s Polio Eradication Initiative, Azmat Abbas, says that “nearly 300,000 children have remained inaccessible to polio vaccinators since June 2012, due to the ban imposed on vaccination in North and South Waziristan.”

The second strand, however, is the general misunderstanding of the fact that polio vaccination is crucial — and risk-free. From KP to Karachi, refusals to vaccinate are being reported, and this is where the involvement of prominent persons can make a difference.

As the Federal Secretary of Health Services, Imtiaz Inayat Elahi, points out, “The involvement of high-profile figures, the religious leadership and community elders, etc, is crucial in developing a pro-vaccination narrative. Anti-polio workers face an insecure and demoralising situation.”

The groups with whom Mr Khan’s convictions carry currency include the religious right (given the PTI’s alliance with the Jamaat-i-Islami and the support of other religio-political groupings), many of the younger generation of voters and, most importantly, the KP government itself. These assets could prove the fulcrum that could galvanise the anti-polio effort.

There is the danger that Mr Khan’s involvement may remain restricted to meeting with anti-polio workers or directing health authorities (although these are much-needed interventions). However, he — and others in a similar position — must realise how far more dramatic gains may become possible through active personal involvement. As Mr Abbas points out, “the personal interest of the leader of the ruling party in KP would certainly act as a morale booster and restore confidence of frontline workers.” Mr Khan plans to make a beginning tomorrow near Peshawar by administering polio drops to children, intending to send the message that his government is committed to eradicating polio from the province. We can only hope that this zeal persists. Pakistan’s ‘national interests’ are too often thought to be in jeopardy over the flimsiest of causes, but this is something that poses the risk of isolating the country. The call for putting a polio-related travel ban on Pakistan originally came in 2011, from the global Independent Monitoring Board for Polio Eradication. India is the first country to have declared the intention to restrict travel; others may follow suit.

At the moment, there is perhaps no way in which Mr Khan can serve the national interest better than by using his considerable influence to ensure that Pakistan is able to envision a polio-free future.

The writer is an assistant editor at Dawn