On April 29, Pakistan reported its second polio case of 2022. Observers have deemed it alarming given the fact that the country celebrated ‘zero polio cases in 12 months’ in January this year.
A two-year-old girl was paralyzed by the wild poliovirus after a 15-month-old boy was diagnosed with same virus on April 22. Both children belonged to North Waziristan in the southern region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. A positive sample from Bannu district of KP was also detected on April 5.
Commenting on the case, Federal Heath Minister Qadir Patel said: “It is heartbreaking to learn that a two-year-old girl will be paralyzed for the rest of her life by a virus that has been eliminated in most parts of the world.”
Pertinently, this specific area was most at risk after the wild poliovirus was detected in environmental samples taken in the last quarter of 2021.
Pakistan remains one of only two countries in the world still battling with polio. In 2020, KP reported 22 cases, but the situation improved massively in 2021, when only one case was reported in January 2021.
National Emergency Operations Centre coordinator Shehzad Baig has termed the new cases as “sad for all associated with polio program.” Meanwhile, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif called an emergency meeting over the issues.
Global experts question why Pakistan is still battling the poliovirus, which most of the countries have successfully defeated. Observers say the reasons are common, ranging from cultural to religious, with conspiracy theories thrown in the mix.
According to a 2018 report on perceptions on polio vaccinations: “The polio eradication program is considered a foreign program in some areas of Pakistan as local leaders are not seen leading it.”
Coordinators of these programs mostly come from other regions, although the lower staff is mostly local. Observers say the coordinators don’t understand the local issues especially in countries as complex as Pakistan.
There are locals who think that the vaccine has some haraam ingredients in it. “It is made up of alcohol and pig fat to humiliate the Muslim population,” one mother from North Waziristan said. The locals also think that the US is using this vaccine to achieve its interests like espionage and injecting infertility in the population.
Another major crisis linked to the polio vaccination is the insecurity, especially for the polio workers and policemen that work with them.
The data shows that militants have killed over 100 healthcare workers in Pakistan since 2012 and experts say the number is quite alarming and continues to instill fear among the health workers.
The polio vaccine has also faced opposition from Islamic clerics in the past, and a number of them have vowed to fight against the vaccination, instead of the disease. This has damaged polio campaigns in the country.
Even so, experts maintain that in the last few years the government has taken the Islamic clergy on board so that they can convey to masses that the polio vaccine is for their own betterment.
Experts say that to resolve the issue, the government needs to engage the local leaders especially in areas like North Waziristan, where the jirga system is quite strong and people still listen to the elders.
Observers say that without involving the local elders, the issue will persist, especially if the locals continue to think that there is a foreign conspiracy in the garb of healthcare.
The only solution, experts insist, is educating the masses with the help of local leaders, doctors and even religious scholars.