Jonas Salk — The hero we are unworthy of

Published June 23, 2014
In 1952, Jonas Salk invented a vaccine that made humans invulnerable to polio, but Pakistanis are still vulnerable. — Photo by AP
In 1952, Jonas Salk invented a vaccine that made humans invulnerable to polio, but Pakistanis are still vulnerable. — Photo by AP

On this day (June 23) in 1995, a man to whom the entire world owes their gratitude passed away at the age of 80. For most of the world today, the innovation credited to this medical researcher has completely fulfilled its purpose. For Pakistan, though, that is yet to happen.

Jonas Salk was was born into a Jewish family living in New York, United States of America in October, 1914. That meant that in Europe, the Great War had just begun.

Apart from the war, mankind was endangered by a number of maladies. So much so that the average age of men in America was 52 years, and in Europe only 50 years. Apart from that, 'Polio', the disease known for rendering an enormous number of children disabled was termed 'the plague of the twentieth century'.

Polio was (and sadly, is) an incurable disease. Even after immeasurable progress in medicine, the cure for polio is yet to be discovered. The longest serving US President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, too, was among the victims of this disease.


Also read: 'Polio confusion'


At the end of World War II, polio started spreading at an alarming rate in the US. Efforts at finding a solution to this disease were stepped up in 1952. Up till 1955, as many as $750 million were being spent on polio-related research every year.

In 1952, Jonas Salk invented a vaccine that made humans invulnerable to polio. The vaccine stayed in testing phases for three years before finally being given the green signal in 1955. A few years later, the vaccine was made available in the form of drops. With the help of its genius and the strength of its efforts, mankind had defeated a deadly disease by winning a war against it that had raged on for thousands of years. It was nothing less than a miracle.

By 1994, every country in North and South America was polio free. Europe followed in 2002. Today, only three countries in the world are host to the virus. In all three of them, there has been violent resistance against the vaccine. It is time the madness met its end.

During the late Benazir Bhutto’s second term as prime minister (1993-96), a nationwide campaign for polio eradication was initiated. It was inaugurated by the administration of the first vaccination drops to Aseefa Bhutto, the premier’s own daughter.

By the year 2000, children in most parts of the country had been vaccinated. Although, absurd as it has always sounded, religious groups opposed the campaign right from its beginning. A major opposition was witnessed in then North West Frontier Province (currently Khyber Pakhtunkhwa).

Why? Because spreading rumours is a favourite pastime among Pakistanis.


Also read: 'Polio paper as costly as a visa'


A rumour that the polio vaccination affects reproductive abilities was sparked. Given how our nation is traditionally disinterested with attribution or fact-checking, the rumour spread far and wide. Of late, Uncle Sam has compounded the problem what with Shakeel Afridi and his whole undercover fake-polio-campaigning-to-find-bin-Laden episode.

To add it all up, a large part of our population believes the vaccination drops to be not only harmful for sexual ability, but also that vaccination is part of a bigger American conspiracy. Someone needs to tell these people that even after millions of children had been administered polio drops, the population of the 'land of the pure' has only increased at a rate twice as much as it was increasing before.

The self-proclaimed guardian knights of the national order of honour (along with being squires of the dishonour of their personal interests) have now resorted to hunting down polio vaccination teams. The bloody war of saving the sacred republic from a heathen conspiracy is still being won, round after round, by shooting and killing innocent men and women administering polio vaccination drops to children vulnerable to the disease.

Such are the circumstances that in many areas of KP, including Peshawar, whole of cities are shut down and motorbike-riding banned in order to successfully complete polio vaccination drives.

In Karachi, teams are banned from visiting areas where Pashtuns are in majority. The Taliban had started targeting local polio vaccination teams even before the Shakeel Afridi episode.


Also read: 'Delayed security nods affect polio drives in city'


The situation is pretty similar to that in Nigeria and Afghanistan, where fundamentalists are violently opposing polio vaccination drives. Resistance against the polio virus can be easily created, but overcoming this resistance is not as easy.

That is the reason why this virus keeps being detected in almost all major cities of Pakistan and especially in the Khyber Pukhtunkhwa and FATA regions. As conspiracy theories spread like wildfire around us, we are busy acting like ostriches; sinking our heads into the ground, preferring to hide from than to face reality.

Just last year, the son of Maulana Tariq Jameel (a well-known religious and spiritual leader in and out of Pakistan), refused to have his children administered polio vaccination drops. How can we expect things to improve in such a country?

Since June 01, 2014, the World Health Organization has declared it mandatory that anyone travelling abroad from Pakistan be carrying a polio vaccination certificate with them. Will this help in changing minds and eliminating the absurdity that is spreading in our country more rapidly than the virus itself?


Translated by Aadarsh Ayaz Laghari

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