LAST week, Nigeria celebrated three years of no new wild polio cases being reported in the country. For years, the West African nation had struggled to eradicate the virus as its anti-polio efforts were derailed by Boko Haram militants who falsely propagated that polio vaccines were a Western conspiracy to sterilise Muslims. Nigeria is inching closer towards its goal of being declared polio-free; the rest of the world eradicated the virus years ago. India with its much larger population that confronts serious health and sanitation challenges managed to be declared polio-free in 2014. Other countries in Pakistan’s vicinity, such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan, were declared polio-free that same year. In contrast, Pakistan has reported 53 new cases of wild polio virus eight months into 2019. Afghanistan has recorded far less — 13 cases within its borders so far this year. The vast majority of the cases in Pakistan are from KP. Taking note of the alarming surge in cases, Prime Minister Imran Khan has pledged to lead the anti-polio effort in the country. In December 2013, with a newly elected PTI government in KP, Mr Khan had been part of the anti-polio drive alongside Maulana Samiul Haq. Like Nigeria, Pakistan too has grappled with religious militancy that targeted such campaigns with threats and violence. Several health workers and security personnel have been killed by militant over the years, and we must always honour their brave efforts.
But it is also important to remember that other conflict-stricken regions in the world still managed to eradicate the virus. What has caused the greatest harm to efforts are rumours and conspiracy theories, particularly following the Abbottabad raid of 2011. News that the CIA-led operation used a hepatitis — incorrectly mistaken as polio — drive as a cover for information gathering helped strengthen the militants’ disinformation tactics. It is true that militancy has subsided considerably — but disinformation campaigns have not. In April, thousands of parents refused vaccination for their children in KP, following rumours of students complaining of feeling sick after they were administered polio drops in Peshawar. It has also come to light that several parents themselves put black ink on their children to mislead polio workers into believing that they had already been immunised. And while public health should never be a bargaining ground, we have recently seen traders in Bannu use polio as a tool to blackmail the government to meet their demands. It is not an easy challenge.
Published in Dawn, August 26th, 2019