Polio: Can Imran Khan help defeat the ugly villain in Pakistan’s story of survival?

Published: December 22, 2013


On October 24, 2013 when I saw polio teams entering my colony – Musharraf Colony in Hayatabad – it was the first time I knew what they had come for. They had come to save lives.

I ran home to tell my mother to get my little sister vaccinated.

Polio – the villain

It was only the night before that I had been peeping into one of the community halls where the elderly, adults and children from the colony had gathered because we were told that some goras (foreigners) were coming to deliver a talk. I had seen one of these lectures before but this time it was the sound of laughter that attracted my friends and me to the side where the event was.

It seemed to be a play.

We could see three men inside. One of them had a thick black moustache and was wearing a turban. He looked like a very intelligent man. Another one held a register in his hand and was being referred to as the accountant and the third man kept running around on the stage – he was the ‘worker’.

Just like my father, the worker in the story is the only bread-winner of the family and his ambition is to give his family a healthy life and good education to his children. But in the story the worker was creating a hue and cry because his younger son had been crippled due to polio.

I turned to my friend, Shakir and asked,

“Who is polio?”

“It is the villain!” he exclaimed.

Shakir was my best friend whom I played with all day after school. From his description of polio, I could only imagine a really evil-looking man with a knife or a gun in his hand holding it to the child’s leg to hurt him. But I kept thinking why the child’s father had not tried to stop the ugly villain and help his child. I was sad to think that this child was now crippled for life and he would never be able to play and run like us.

I went back home feeling sorry for the boy and cursing polio for the harm that it had done to the boy. I thought to myself that I would have fought back had Polio attacked me. I would have punched him right in the face and killed him.

Polio – the disease

Over dinner my father inquired about my sad face and my mother replied that I had learnt from someone that an ugly man called Polio had hurt a boy and that the boy was now crippled for life. My father looked at us and laughed. I thought that it was insensitive of him to laugh when the matter under discussion was so serious. He went on to say,

Polio is a disease. Do you know that this disease attacks your nervous system? It is caused by an unhygienic and unsanitary environment and can cause disability for life. But you are right Saleem, it is like an ugly-looking villain.”

He smiled at me and continued,

“The theatre was arranged by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) team. ILO is a body working for labour rights and the promotion of occupational safety and health programmes. They target prevention from communicable diseases and other occupational hazards that can cause health-related problems.”

He then turned to my mother and told her that she should always clean her hands before cooking or even when handling my younger sister Aasia. He explained that polio attacked children up to the age of five years and until that age a child must have a dose of two drops of polio vaccine during each polio drive.

My father told us that he was going to visit our neighbours the next day to explain to them the consequences of not getting their children vaccinated from this incapacitating disease. He further explained that he, along with other workers from Hayatabad, had voluntarily committed themselves to help the health teams, World Health Organisation (WHO), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and ILO, in order to promote a healthier Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P).

He said that they would go door-to-door to spread the message and make sure that all parents were made aware of the ugly villain that polio is and the harm that it could bring to their children. He went onto say that unless we change our own attitudes we would never be able to work towards a healthy and progressive household and community.

I was jubilant to hear all this information and more so, at the efforts that my own father was taking to stop this disease. I said excitedly,

“I will come along with you father and help promote this message!”

International Labour Organisation’s Occupational Safety and Health programme

ILO’s Occupational Safety and Health Programme (OSH) at the workplace engages trade unions and employers and through them, workers and communities in formal and informal situations. ILO mobilises them to raise awareness on prevention of communicable diseases such as polio, HIV and AIDS, and helps to create a responsible attitude in households, at the community level and amongst employers to participate in the elimination of this endemic from Pakistan.

Through the OSH programme, ILO has engaged the Department of Labour (K-P) and the Employee’s Social Security Institute (ESSI) in the social and vocational rehabilitation of people who are affected by polio and have different abilities. Convention 159 of the ILO promotes the mainstreaming of persons with disabilities through vocational rehabilitation.

Recently, the Minister for Special Education, Social Welfare and Women Development in K-P, Professor Mehr Taj Roghani has announced several initiatives to contribute to the efforts of polio elimination in the province. The ministry is working towards improvement of policy and programmatic interventions through legislative and infrastructural reforms. Moreover the ministry has recognised the need to implement the two percent quota for employment of persons with disabilities. While the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government in K-P has taken these measures, the PTI leader, Imran Khan has also condemned the threat to the lives of health workers and polio immunisation teams in the field.

Imran Khan’s tireless efforts to make Shaukat Khanam a state-of-the-art facility for cancer eradication has paid off and millions of lives are saved every year. The success of Shaukat Khanam is indeed an encouraging achievement; however, polio eradication requires a much more collaborative effort. If Imran can engage religious icons and other influential leaders by winning their support, this drive might actually lead to fruitful results.

The implementation of the vocational rehabilitation convention of the ILO C159, ratified by Pakistan, is in question. However, the fact remains that it will be the efforts of our leaders, individuals, households and communities that can help bridge this gap and one day allow Pakistan to be a polio-free country.

Rabia Razzaque

Rabia Razzaque

A human rights activist and an advocate of youth empowerment and youth engagement in dialogue for social change. A graduate of Business Administration with specialization in marketing and fond of swimming, reading and researching. She tweets as @Rabia_Razzaque (twitter.com/Rabia_Razzaque)

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