Taliban in Swat: Crippled and blind

Crippled and blind
Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The media should have been reporting – and celebrating – the eradication of polio from Pakistan years ago. We were almost polio-free as recently as three years ago, whereas today this dreadful and entirely preventable disease is spreading fast. It has just got a major boost in its bid to blight the lives of our children courtesy of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) which on Sunday ordered all non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to immediately leave the Swat valley, including those agencies working on polio eradication. The TTP spokesman Muslim Khan said, “They come and tell us how to make lavatories in mosques and houses. I’m sure we can do it ourselves. There is no need for foreigners to tell us this.” When asked why the TTP was against polio vaccination, Khan said, “The TTP is against polio vaccination because it causes infertility” – thereby reiterating the old and entirely-without-foundation myth in the Muslim world that polio vaccination is some sort of vast western conspiracy to emasculate and impoverish Muslim nations. He concluded by saying that he was against any operation run by NGOs and that the polio vaccine was imported and therefore could not be trusted.

Membership of the comity of nations brings with it certain responsibilities. If we consider a nation as an individual, and that individual has a nasty communicable disease, we would not associate with them and would not appreciate attempts by our neighbour to infect us. This is precisely what happened in Nigeria in 2004. The Muslim northern states of Nigeria refused to participate in polio eradication programmes for the same reason that Muslim Khan is refusing to allow EPI teams into Swat. A rapid and catastrophic consequence was that polio quickly broke out, herd immunity in Nigeria was lost and neighbouring states were quickly infected. Benin, Burkina-Faso, Ghana, Nigeria and Togo, all polio free, were placed at risk and then quickly infected. They ‘caught’ polio from Nigeria because parts of that country refused to get themselves vaccinated. It took years and millions of dollars to bring the outbreak under control again. We now run the risk of doing precisely the same as Nigeria did to its neighbours. A viral reservoir will be quickly built up in Swat; herd immunity is probably already lost, and given the mobility of populations in that area the almost inevitable result is that the virus will find a ready means of travelling across borders, both national and provincial. The blindness of the likes of Muslim Khan is going to needlessly cripple the lives of many.