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Pakistan asks religious scholars to fight polio
Pakistan has recorded 111 polio cases this year
By Ashfaq Yusufzai
PESHAWAR – The government is again asking religious scholars to help educate people who refuse to allow their children to receive the oral polio vaccine.
So far this year, the disease has crippled some 20 children in Pakistan because their parents consider vaccinations unIslamic.
“Pakistan has recorded 111 polio cases through October 11. Twenty of the children have not received any dose of the vaccine which made them paralysed” Dr. Alta Bosan, head of the expanded programme on immunisation in Pakistan, told Central Asia Online.
Balochistan has recorded 47 cases, FATA 29, Sindh 20, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) 12, Punjab 2 and Gilgit-Baltistan 1.
Many parents are under the misconception that they don’t need treatment for a disease which has not yet occurred, he said. Pakistan is working with the National Research and Development Foundation (NRDF) to cope with the refusals.
In KP, of 17,000 refusals, 5,000 were tied to religion, he said.
Ulema asked to talk to parents
Some 3,000 members of the ulema are being asked by the NRDF to reach out and convince parents that Islam doesn’t prohibit polio vaccination.
On October 7, noted religious scholar Maulana Syed Abdul Nadeem Shah administered drops to children in Wahid Refugees Camp in Peshawar, where two children have been infected with polio due to refusals this year.
“Islamic laws do not prohibit drops to the children, but there are clear instructions in the Koran that everyone has the responsibility to protect their kids from all kinds of ailments,” Shah, told Central Asia Online.
“Several medical experts have convinced us that oral polio vaccine (OPV) is safe for human consumption and it protects children from disabilities,” he said, “(so we) have lent a helping hand to the government-run campaign aiming to immunize all the children below 5.”
The last anti-polio campaign, which ended in July, registered 100% improvement in vaccinations inKP and FATA, KP Governor Barrister Masud Kausar said.
“The situation is fast improving,” he told a delegation including representatives of UNICEF and the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Militants harm public health
Ghulam Rasool, a mason from Bara Tehsil, Khyber Agency, learned in March that his 18-month-old son had contracted polio and would be affected his entire, doctors said.
Rasool cursed the militants who kept vaccination teams from serving his village.
“I was helpless against the Taliban and accepted their every order,” he told Central Asia Online.
Another victim of the easily preventable disease is Muhammad Arif, son of Zulfiqar Shah in Hissara village, Tirah, Khyber Agency. He tested positive for polio March 1, at the age of 10 months, after his parents refused to vaccinate him.
Half of Pakistan’s children with confirmed polio didn’t receive the vaccine because of terrorism.
The Rasool and Shah families fell prey to the disease because health workers' inability to reach vulnerable areas, resulting in a growing list of polio cases.
A success story in Jamrud
The ulema are also trying to convince the Taliban to allow vaccinations, Shah said.
In March, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) warned the WHO to stay out of Ghundai-2 Union Council in Jamrud Tehsil. Hearing of the threat, the NRDF and local ulema met with the Taliban March 29.
The NRDF and scholars talked to the militants and showed them fatwas by the leading ulema of Pakistan and KP that favoured the vaccinations.
“The militants were under the misconception that OPV was un-Islamic and that (it was) a conspiracy to render recipients infertile ... and cut the Muslim population,” Dr. Imtiaz Ali Shah, the anti-polio campaign’s focal person for FATA and KP, told Central Asia Online.
The vaccine contains no harmful biologically active materials, emphasised Dr. Abdul Jamil of UNICEF. Medics have given the vaccine to more than 1 billion children globally since 1995, Jamil said, adding, “No side effects have been reported in this period.”
After two hours, the militants promised to announce their support for vaccinations in the April 1 Friday sermons in the area. The vaccination teams immunised 2,900 children in April without hindrance.
A number of hindrances
Terrorism is not the only obstacle to vaccinations.
Early this year, world health agencies warned about stopping funding, prompting the government to review its strategy and political commitment.
Administrative weakness also hampers the anti-polio effort. Fewer than 500 vaccinators work in FATA, giving each one more than 54 sq km to cover.
Vaccinators face demands from some FATA residents, Afridi said, noting that some want road construction or provision of electricity and running water in exchange for giving children OPV.
But the main problem is intimidation. About 25% of the children who need the vaccine (2.7m out of almost 10.9m) live in areas where the Taliban have influence. The militants have killed four anti-polio workers, including a surgeon, and abducted four others in the past two years.