Beat polio even if you have to “eat grass”

Published: December 20, 2012
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Amtiaz Khan (C), brother of Nasima Bibi, a female worker of an anti-polio drive campaign who was shot by gunmen, comforts other relatives at a hospital morgue in Karachi. PHOTO: REUTERS

The casualties in our seemingly endless war on Polio were once limited to the sufferers of the disease itself. If the recent martyrdom of six vaccination workers in Karachi and Peshawar is any indication, this war is only getting bloodier and more terrifying by the day.

In 1991, when El Salvador was engulfed by a brutal civil war, a cease-fire was arranged between the guerilla groups and the government to allow free mobility to the polio vaccination teams in the country. Two sides, locked in a savage conflict for ten years, had enough wits to acknowledge that their political and ideological differences had to wait; there was yet another enemy, greater than both of them, that needed to be dealt with first.

In Pakistan, this idea is yet to be comprehended. Six vaccination workers have lost their lives in the past few days, all in major cities, while fulfilling what can only be described as a holy duty. These are the kind of people who go door-to-door, making sure that your child does not have to toss away his cricket bat and grab a pair of crutches. They carried on with their work despite a volley of threats, and as senior police officer suggested, the fatwa against polio vaccines by the militants.

In Waziristan, the Taliban blocked entry of polio vaccination workers, depriving no less than 240,000 children of these essential vaccines. They are yet to figure out that polio is nobody’s ally, nobody’s bargaining chip. It’s a scourge that is not confined by any ideological, cultural or religious barrier. It will devour your children with precisely the same ruthlessness as it will devour mine.

Where the vaccination campaign isn’t being hindered by the extremists, we find ourselves assaulted by a hundred myths and conspiracy theories, each more ludicrous than the last. If it’s not a rumour about polio vaccines being made from pigs, there is a journalist on TV trying to convince you that expired polio vaccines are causing polio.

Looking at the complete picture lays waste to the notion that what we’re observing is merely unawareness. Nay, it is an open war against our untiring efforts to eradicate a disease that has no place outside a history book. At what point does obstruction of the vaccination programme stop being ignorance and becomes ‘treason’ instead? Could there be greater disservice to your fellow countrymen than putting them at risk of an incurable disease, by discouraging them from getting vaccinated?

If it is not the fear of polio that would ratchet up our enthusiasm for its eradication, could we make use of national shame? Am I alone in my humiliation of being a citizen of one of the only three nations in the world that have not yet rid themselves of this disease?

In 1965, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto made a historical speech in response to India’s nuclear programme: “If India builds the bomb, we will eat grass and leaves, even go hungry, but we will get one of our own”.

On February 2012, India was officially declared a polio-free country by WHO. I wouldn’t want this discourse to slip into a political territory, but is it possible to utilise our determination and natural competitiveness with India, just this once, for something besides the acquisition of war instruments?

Is it possible for us to jump out of our seats and declare that we too would vanquish polio from our midst even if we have to eat grass?

Read more by Faraz here, or follow him on Twitter @FarazTalat.

Faraz Talat

Faraz Talat

A medical doctor and bubble-wrap enthusiast from Rawalpindi, who writes mostly about science and social politics (and bubble-wrap). He tweets @FarazTalat (twitter.com/FarazTalat)

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