Conservatives' polio vaccine boycott takes toll in Pakistan

By Abdul Malik Achakzai   |   Sept. 16, 2013 at 11:51 AM   |   0 comments

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QUETTA, Pakistan (UPI Next) -- Nasir Khan, a waiter with a polio-stricken 3-year-old son, is one of the faces of a boycott of polio vaccinations by conservative Islamic leaders in Pakistan who claim the campaign is a Western conspiracy to limit Muslim populations by causing AIDS and sterility.

Khan, who lives away from his village, said his wife turned vaccinators away after religious leaders warned the drops are harmful.

"Even my family was visited by the female vaccination team [recently] and my wife had refused to vaccinate my only son," Khan told UPI Next. "My son will be crippled forever due to a polio attack."

Public health officials say the populations of conservative regions of Pakistan, Afghanistan and northern Nigeria are difficult to vaccinate, in part because of widespread belief that the drops are a plot to cripple their children and reduce the birthrate. Opposition has grown since the 2012 U.S. assassination of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, an effort that included using a Pakistani doctor running a fake vaccination effort to collect information on bin Laden.

The World Health Organization's 2013 Global Polio Eradication Initiative fact sheet said 27 Pakistani children have been stricken with polio so far this year, compared with 29 for all of 2012.

One of only three endemic polio countries, Pakistan's informal opposition to the vaccine began in the early 2000s, when the United States led the invasion of Afghanistan, and then Iraq.

Khan said his village maulvi, or local Islamic leader, has told worshipers not to take the vaccine. An unknown number of Muslim figures across the Afghan border have also forbidden use of the vaccine after the Abbottabad raid.

Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan spokesman Shahidullah Shahid said the organization was not opposed to the vaccine before the assassination of bin Laden.

"Now we know the strategy of the infidels is to arrange such campaigns, which are intended for espionage and targeting our leadership rather than anything else," he told UPI Next.

"We appeal to the workers whether they are male or female doctors, health workers, teachers and every kind of volunteer not to be part of polio campaigns, otherwise they are themselves responsible for being targeted by our mujahedeen.”

The highly contagious polio virus is transmitted by water and can leave its victims -- usually young children -- partially paralyzed.

WHO, which once predicted the world could be free of polio by now, has said Pakistan had the world's highest number of polio cases in 2011.

WHO spokeswoman Sonia Bari said 22 vaccinators were killed in 2012, most of them women working in the most deeply religious districts of northwestern Pakistan.

The U.N. agency says Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria are the only countries where polio is still endemic. This summer, the virus again swept conflict-weary Somalia, and in August turned up in a river in northern Israel, news reports said.

Shafia Bibi, 38, living in Chaman, a remote village near the Afghan border, refused to let her children be vaccinated, "because the drops are given for the purpose that the children may not be able to have a larger size family.”

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