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Ensuring children are vaccinated against polio in Pakistan

Last month international experts warned that the world was “off track” for eradicating polio by the end of 2012 and one of the main regions for concern was Pakistan.

Pakistan is the only polio-endemic country to see an increase in polio infections. In 2009, 89 children were struck by the disease and in 2010, this number rose to 144. With over 50 registered infections in the first half of 2011 and cases being reported in new areas, there are fears polio is spreading in Pakistan. 

The government and the World Health Organisation have been taking immediate vaccination measures to try to contain any outbreaks. But health workers in the country identified a serious problem in some tribal regions, where parents have been refusing to allow their children to be vaccinated. Now, a report in the Guardian highlights a new campaign which is being fought in Pakistan to overcome these objections.

In federally administered tribal areas (Fata) such as in the Khyber Agency, over 200,000 children have missed immunisation since 2009. Though in some cases, the problem could have been accessibility of medical care or displacement of families, one of the main causes is the reluctance of parents to have their children immunised. This stems from rumours which were spread by a few militant Islamist leaders that the polio drops caused infertility. Radio and mosque sermons told parents that the vaccinations were part of an American plot to reduce the population of Muslims. Other groups alleged that the vaccinations contained pig fat forbidden for Muslims and stated that any child struck by polio would be a martyr for refusing to be part of a western conspiracy. Reports of the CIA’s fake vaccination campaign used in their search for Bin Laden have further fuelled such rumours.

However, the new campaign led by the National Research and Development Foundation (NRDF) in partnership with the United Nations Children’s Agency (UNICEF) is fighting back. Over 5,000 religious scholars have been asked to work at provincial and district levels along the tribal belt to promote polio vaccinations. In March, clerics belonging to the Deobandi sect tackled over 8,000 vaccine refusal cases in a week-long campaign. And this month, Shia scholars will be working along the Parachinar valley. Messages about the safety of the polio drops are communicated through sermons and scholars go house-to-house with medical teams. A manager at the NRDF told the Guardian that the religious scholars had played a vital role in convincing parents that their children should be vaccinated. However, at a time of ongoing instability in Pakistan, where many families have little food or clean water to drink, some adults openly expressed their bewilderment that all this effort should be put into polio eradication when so many other problems abound.

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