Pakistan: Losing The War Against Polio


Every morning, Saif-ul-Islam takes his youngest daughter out for a drive in his van before heading to his job. Working in the transport business, the van is also his livelihood. His daughter, Solaim, who is a year old now, is Islam’s favorite child, he confesses.

The favoritism is not because Solaim is the youngest; it's because a few months ago she contracted the polio virus, which has left her lower body completely paralyzed.

“If I had allowed her to be vaccinated, she would not have lost her legs,” says a visibly agonized Islam, adding that he cannot stop thinking about the day when he said no to the polio team that visited his home a few weeks before his daughter was attacked by the deadly virus. “I regret it every day. I worry about her future. Who will take care of a disabled person if we are not there?”

Saif-ul-Islam lives in Mardan District, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Province, Pakistan, which borders Afghanistan. This is ground zero in Pakistan’s battle to eradicate polio, which has now spread beyond KP and has put at risk the well-being of millions of children across South Asia.

Islam explains that he refused the vaccine because of what the elders and religious clerics in his village had told him. He speaks of a cleric near his house, a preacher at one the largest mosques in the area. A visit to the mosque is rebuffed; the administrators do not welcome inquiring journalists.

Outside, however, worshippers exiting after offering Friday prayers do not try to hide their spite for the polio vaccination.

“There is pig fat in it,” exclaims a bearded man in his early twenties, wearing a skull cap. Others shout “yes” in unison. “They want to sterilize our children. It is a conspiracy by the West to eradicate the Muslim population,” another adds.

When asked where they heard this from, one of the men replies, “You should check out the Zarb-e-Momin. It contains detailed proof.”

Zarb-e-Momin is a newspaper launched in the 1990s by Al-Rashid Trust, an organization that came into the U.S. crosshairs after 9/11, when Washington declared it to be financing international terrorism. The organization has since gone underground but it continues to publish the newspaper in two languages – English and Urdu, the national language of Pakistan.

Known to be a mouthpiece of Al-Qaeda, Zarb-e-Momin regularly features articles that call for “jihad against the enemies of Islam”. The paper is distributed free outside many mosques and religious seminaries across Pakistan.

Another newspaper that regularly rails against the polio vaccine is the popular Daily Ummat. It is also published in Urdu and is known for its extremist right-wing views. The paper ran an “investigative” series on polio earlier this year, churning out conspiracy theories about the vaccine.

When the newspaper’s editor was contacted, he refused to be interviewed or identified. “There are multiple sources on the internet that verify our claims of the polio vaccine being not good for children,” he said in a telephone conversation before hanging up.

While many mainstream Urdu newspapers are responsible for legitimizing the conspiracy theories about polio vaccine, a blanket ban since last year on the entry of polio teams into the Waziristan region, the tribal belt of Pakistan where terrorist groups like the Taliban, Al Qaeda and their affiliates are headquartered, has further strengthened opposition to the vaccine among ordinary Pakistanis.

Sardar KHAN
July 13, 2013 at 20:58

You are completely wrong here.Pakistan was free of polio in late 80's and would have been polio free now,if stupid cia's bosses did not used polio vaccination for dna test to detect BL.What a stupid act to perform? You bunderstanis are also guilty of same crime to link refusal to vacination to the wrongly link this with population control,but forget your prime minister Indhra Gandhi did used to vacinate bunderstani peoples for family control.Being ruled by Muslim/Islam hate,you hindus will go to any length to defame Muslims?Islam.There is only one word to say,"SHAME" to be so down grade yourself.

June 26, 2013 at 13:11

It was a huge challange to make India a polio free nation. The challange was specially from Muslim community where polio drops where being considered as a means by goverment to reduce population growth in muslim community (average muslim in India 3.8 children). But health ministries took staps to involves Mulla and religious people from the community to remove the fear and it got succeeded too.

Today India with billion+ people is a polio free nation with last polio reported 2 years back.

Biggest challange with Muslim community is illitracy and too much fundamentism and dependence of religion (and not science) to solve all their problems, such behaviour makes the most intelligent person act like fools.

Dewey Last [formerly But....]
June 26, 2013 at 05:13

Pakistan is losing the war against polio is one of the symptoms. Pakistan is losing the war with itself. A war without end and a war it cannot win. Muslim fundamentalism will stay strong and will be a factor for the rest of this generation, perhaps even longer. Poverty is growing, technology transfers are non-existent, foreign investments is lagging and most of all the political will is a non-factor. 

Muslim fundamentalism is not a trend but a movement felt across the whole of the Islamic crescent. And a movement that is vigorous and powerful. It is doubtful that any of the countries with large fundamentalist populations will enter into the world's mainstream communities any time in the near future. 

CIA Factbook:

The UN Human Development Report estimated poverty in 2011 at almost 50% of the population. Inflation has worsened the situation, climbing from 7.7% in 2007 to almost 12% for 2011, before declining to 10% in 2012. As a result of political and economic instability, the Pakistani rupee has depreciated more than 40% since 2007

June 26, 2013 at 03:43

The CIA deserves a lot of blame for this.  It's like using the sign of the Red Cross to funnel arms – you don't do it because the short term gains are outweighed by the long term damage done.

Of course, it takes a certain breed of stupid to say, "Because you're killing our children with drones, we'll let polio and other diseases kill our kids until you stop!"  I'm pretty sure the entire world has lost its ability to think beyond its own rhetoric. 

Muhammad NaIya
June 26, 2013 at 00:41

It is rather sad and unfortunate the polio eradication programme became stuck in controversies and its not just in pakistan, no. In many cases there was ans still is this condescending attitude from the bureaucracy whenever people question the integrity and sincerity of the imuunisation programme. Insinuatioms of 'population control' contamination by 'haram' are usually not addressed and this built up immense resistance and skepticism.

The USs' relentless and rather ruthless of bn Laden compounded the Pakistani case and unfortunately there was little ot no clearly defineed attempt to divorce this pirsit from the polio readication proramme. Governments could immensely help by addressing the ligering doubts in a clear and openmanner than the take-it-or-leave-it approach now prevalent in many nations where there is resistance to the programme.

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