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Politics and polio

Published Jul 18, 2012 12:10am

HERE’S a suggestion for Pakistani politicians. For just a couple of days, forget the usual political rhetoric. Take a break from bashing each other or America, railing against a clash of institutions, or making predictions about political developments over the next few months. Instead, focus on a problem that is of real and immediate relevance to ordinary Pakistanis: the serious threats to the campaign for the eradication of polio. Tuesday’s shooting in Karachi of a UN doctor working on polio immunisation followed the refusal over the last couple of days of the Taliban and some tribal leaders to allow polio vaccinations in parts of Fata, where the problem is most acute. If the immunisation campaign that ends today is extended by a few days, and if all major political parties focus on the issue, with the JI, the JUI and the PTI joining hands with the PML-N and the ruling coalition, there is a decent chance that something will give. This will not do away with opposition to polio vaccination overnight. But it should give health workers, local officials and supportive clerics more ammunition to negotiate with those who are resisting, and it might encourage parents to take risks to get their children immunised. At the very least it will demonstrate that our politicians are concerned with more than just politics.

The mistrust of polio immunisation should not be dismissed as being entirely ignorant or unjustified. Dr Shakeel Afridi and the CIA did no favours to the project when they used a fake vaccination programme to try to track down Osama bin Laden. Other elements of the US-Pakistan relationship, particularly drone attacks, are being positioned as reasons to block the state-run campaign. None of this is helped by long-held suspicions among some communities that polio vaccination is un-Islamic or designed to weaken Muslims. In this scenario, what is needed is high-profile messaging that can counter deeply ingrained perceptions.

Given the threat to the lives of campaign workers, the problem is also one of the state’s failure to protect them and, in Fata, of it no longer having control of chunks of territory. But the containment of polio cannot wait for better policing or the restoration of the state’s writ in the tribal areas. In the immediate term, what could help is rhetoric that approves of vaccination and positions the issue as one that should not be held hostage to politics and American policies. But it will go unnoticed as long as it isn’t coming from the top of the food chain. At this point, it is worth giving persuasion from the highest levels a try.