January 11, 2013 6:42 pm

Pakistan’s victims

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Muslim leaders should do more to support polio vaccines

Rarely has extremism become such an enemy of human health as in Pakistan. Alongside an escalating campaign of indiscriminate bombings, including the series of attacks that killed more than 100 people on Thursday, has been a steady trickle of targeted assassinations of immunisation workers engaged in efforts to beat polio. The Islamic world has to ensure the deaths are not in vain.

It is tempting to see the vaccine killings as a response to the CIA’s use of a hepatitis B programme as cover for its operation to track down Osama bin Laden in 2010. While few mourn the al-Qaeda leader, the grisly truth is that extremist groups have used this part of the story as a pretext to politicise vaccination and deter participants through violence.

It is difficult to prove a direct causal link, but previous western military actions and local ill-informed claims that vaccines are a covert sterilisation technique have helped to undermine programmes in several countries, notably in northern Nigeria, another residual outpost of polio.

In Pakistan, factors such as US drone attacks have been used to justify strikes against western targets extending beyond immunisers. Yet, the country’s use of “lady health workers” is particularly delicate: most communities prefer that women carry out the work. Extremists, however, are hostile to an active role for women on all counts.

It is tragic that vaccines should be wrongly perceived as western or Christian, let alone detrimental. The earliest records of immunisation are in China, India and the Ottoman Empire. Today many vaccines are manufactured in Asia.

It is understandable that public concern over the dangers of polio has fallen in direct proportion to the success of vaccination campaigns over the past 50 years in reducing the number of people affected. But outbreaks of other preventable diseases, such as measles, should serve as a reminder of the value of immunisation.

The Pakistani authorities need to take vaccination more seriously, with better funding, supervision, support and partnership with respected religious and secular leaders. Other Muslim governments and clerics should play a greater role in advocating and acting as mediators with religious groups in vaccine programmes around the world. Oil-rich countries in particular should become more active in funding.

Politicians should encourage “days of tranquillity” of the type introduced during conflicts in Afghanistan and Sudan, with all sides benefiting from access to health workers. Finally, polio should become less of an exceptional campaign and be more integrated alongside other vaccination, health and social programmes. That would save costs and spread visible benefits for all regardless of their beliefs or social issues.

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