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In Fighting Polio, Information Is Half the Battle

A polio vaccination worker gives polio vaccine drops to a young girl in Peshawar.
A polio vaccination worker gives polio vaccine drops to a young girl in Peshawar.
Two new cases of polio have been reported in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas, where poverty, illiteracy and extremist ideology militate against efforts to eradicate the disease.

The reports come from Bara, in the Khyber Agency located in the north of the country where the Pakistan Army has been battling militant groups for several years.

Lat Thursday, health officials and relatives told Radio Mashaal, RFE/RL's Pashto language service, that both of the afflicted were children under one year of age, one of whom died in a Peshawar hospital. Children under five years of age have the highest risk of polio infection.

Taj Muhammad, the father of the child who died in a Peshawar hospital, told Radio Mashaal that polio teams do not visit their area due to insurgent activity.

"Polio teams have not visited the area for the past three years. There is no polio (vaccination) supplier nor a proper center and no one received the drops," he said.

Polio-vaccination workers rarely reach the area, citing security concerns.

On May 28, Pakistani authorities suspended a UN-supported vaccination campaign on the outskirts of Peshawar after motorcyclists opened fire on two female polio workers, killing one and injuring the other. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack.

Radio Mashaal Engages the People

Radio Mashaal has sought to counter the propaganda and connect aid workers with communities to provide vital medical assistance to the region’s children. The broadcaster regularly engages the public through call-in shows, often inviting doctors to answer questions directly from listeners and raise awareness when polio vaccination campaigns commence. Women figure prominently among those who call in, often seeking reassurance that the polio drops pose no threat to their children.

In addition to doctors, Radio Mashaal has invited mullahs to participate in programs to explain to audiences that the polio vaccines do not violate Islam.

Feedback to the shows has been tremendous. Radio Mashaal frequently receives grateful emails and phone calls from listeners praising them for their valuable work.

In an interview, one doctor claimed that since Radio Mashaal highlighted the issue of polio drops in its program, the number of parents who refused to have polio drops administered to their children dropped by nearly 50 percent.

Another doctor opened a free, one-day health camp for the people of the tribal regions solely because of the amount of calls he received on Radio Mashaal's call-in program.

Working in a Dangerous Environment

Polio workers in Pakistan, who are often women, operate in a hostile environment, constantly under threats of violence from militant groups. Police officers who act as their bodyguards also risk injury and death.

Months before the May 28 slaying, a wave of attacks against polio workers from December 17 to December 20 2012 left eight dead in Karachi and one in Peshawar. Five of those killed were women.

The Islamic militant group Jundullah claimed responsibility for the attacks, telling Radio Mashaal that polio vaccination is forbidden in Islam. Militants have also claimed that the vaccines are part of a plot to make Muslim children infertile.

Intervention by religious extremists is considered a major reason for the failure of polio-eradication initiatives in both Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan.

According to the World Health Organization, 198 cases of polio were reported in Pakistan in 2011, the highest figure in over a decade.

That figure dropped to 58 cases in 2012, thanks to widespread immunisation efforts.

Polio has ravaged the world for thousands of years. Most infections present only minimal symptoms, however, some can lead to permanent paralysis, especially in the legs.

In the 1880's, major epidemics spread across Europe, and soon made their way to the United States. The epidemics reached their peak in the mid-20th century, killing or paralyzing over half a million people globally each year.

A vaccine was introduced by Jonas Stalk in 1955, and vaccines have since been refined to the point where polio has disappeared from most of the world. The opposition of vaccination by the Taliban and other militant groups is a key reason for polio's continued survival in Pakistan.

Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria are the only countries where polio remains endemic.

-- Arash Shinwary