The writer is a security and political analyst and works at the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad
Pakistan is one of the three countries in the world where poliovirus continues to infect everyone, crippling the most vulnerable sections of the population, children, pregnant women and individuals with immune deficiency. The other two countries where polio is yet to be eradicated are Afghanistan and Nigeria. All three are Muslim countries. India, the second largest country with a larger Muslim population than Pakistan, has become polio-free.
The question is, why we are failing while the rest of the world has succeeded in freeing themselves from this plague? There are many reasons for the puzzling and troubling state of affairs on this issue — irrational social attitudes, misuse of religion, apathy of the society and weak governance. I will spell out these reasons and suggest a way out if someone with power and authority would care.
Firstly, why is polio an enemy of all, why does it pose a major threat to the people and to the state of Pakistan itself? Polio is a virus. Like all viruses that attack humans, it spreads in many ways — open, raw sewage, human waste, air and polluted water. It is invisible because 96 per cent of the infected persons don’t show any symptoms. Not all affected persons may be the victim of the disease, but can cause poliovirus infection to their immediate family members, neighbourhood and the region where they live. When the infected persons change their residence, they carry the live virus within their bodies to other places, cities and countries.
What happens when poliovirus attacks a person? He/she may die, be crippled and may have severe breathing problems leading to more health issues. Imagine a healthy child getting crippled because poliovirus attacked his or her motor neurons, which it does. Think of parents and families with crippled children and how taxing the burden of life might become for them. And this is a tragedy that can easily and without any costs be avoided.
At least, we can and must raise our voice, do whatever we can do to make people aware, push governments to work harder and expose the ignorance and hypocrisy of those who prevent polio eradication to the extent of using violence against polio vaccination teams and the security personnel sent out to protect them. What a shame!
There are many bigoted social attitudes but none are so damaging as resistance against polio eradication and family planning — which envisions a small, affordable size of family with healthy children, with all their basic needs taken care of. They must be contested, at least, spoken against and no matter how little progress we make, campaigns must be consistent and carried out0 with every bit of social and official vigour.
Religion is about peace, every religion in my view — personal peace, social stability and order, and a disciplined good life. In our part of the world, and perhaps everywhere, religion is employed as a powerful social and emotional tool for reprehensible ends. The most tragic use of religion is for justification of violence in general and against polio vaccination teams in particular. The rational and thinking sector of the Pakistani clergy has an obligation to stand up against religious bigotry. Perhaps, they will make a better impression in our struggle against poliovirus.
The good part of the story is that a large part of society is supportive of anti-polio efforts. Eliminating this virus will make our children and cities safe, and the world at large, safer.