Imperial Hubris

To put it rather mildly, lately Pakistan has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. The latest was when on May 5, the World Health Organization recommended strict travel restrictions on Pakistan due to the rising number of polio cases in the country.

The spread of polio, WHO said, is an international public health emergency that threatens to infect other countries with the crippling disease. The United Nation’s public health arm’s guidelines to fight the disease, recommended that Pakistanis traveling abroad should carry polio vaccination certificates.

The list of the countries being recommended polio caution are Syria and Cameroon — two other countries where the disease was previously said to have been eradicated but have recently been known to have been exporting the potentially disease. Pakistan is one of only three countries where the crippling virus is endemic. The other two countries are Nigeria and Afghanistan.

Thus, Pakistan, a [non-recognized] member of the nuclear club is bunched with the most troubled states.

The criticism for this situation is being directed against many. Indeed there are issues. Pakistan, however, cannot be singled out for anti-vaccine sentiments. Vaccinations have never been criticism free. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study Ten great public health achievements — United States, 1900-1999, describes vaccination as one of the top ten achievements of public health in the 20th century. A College of Physicians of Philadelphia study states, “Although the time periods have changed, the emotions and deep-rooted beliefs—whether philosophical, political, or spiritual—that underlie vaccine opposition have remained relatively consistent since Edward Jenner introduced vaccination.”

In reality, the vaccines are a chemical being introduced into the human system, and things can happen. Celebrity Jenny McCarthy, her advocacy group Generation Rescue, and the organization Talk about Curing Autism (TACA) have spearheaded these efforts to remove “toxins” from vaccines, for fear that these substances lead to autism. Her claims have been contested.

For instance,  in the U.S., all states except Mississippi and West Virginia allow parents to opt out of their children’s otherwise-mandatory vaccinations for religious reasons. Australia’s Sydney Morning News quoted official figures in January 2014 that the country has 36,320 registered c0conscientious objectors out of more than 2.2 million children. Their parents claiming they object on philosophical or moral grounds or give medical reasons for their failure to immunize.

However, in Pakistan, besides such medical concerns, some have interpreted that their religion does not allow vaccination. And the fear of Americans (and westerners) dispensing mischief is also a major issue, especially after the American-led invasion of neighboring Afghanistan. Some groups, often identified as “Taliban” have issued religious edicts opposing vaccination as an American plot to sterilize Muslims. The intensity of such opposition continues to be a major challenge in stamping out polio in Pakistan. Several health workers and their security guards have lost their lives while performing their duty. The campaign against immunization was started by the current Pakistani Taliban leader, Mullah Fazlullah, in 2005, and turned more violent after Osama Bin Laden was killed in a secret U.S. raid in 2011. 

Pakistan’s popular leader, Imran Khan, chair of the Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (Pakistan Movement for Justice), at great personal risk, has led the immunization drive, especially in the Khyber Pakhtunkwha (KPK) province that his party governs. In December last year, formally launching the immunization campaign, he revealed that he has been threatened for his part in launching a polio vaccination campaign. He stresses that the war of terror as a motivating factor, he said ”there is more radicalization and fanaticism than ever before.”

Imran, who insists that the work against polio has to continue to prevent the virus from spreading, has reached out to all segments of the population to promote this campaign. Maulana Samiul Haq — often described as the father of the Taliban — joined Imran in his native Akora Khattak at the inaugural immunization campaign. Despite repeated requests, Samiul Haq, who is chief of his own faction of Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam besides running the Darul Uloom Haqqania seminary, had advised caution about publishing his fatwa favoring immunization. However, the governor got it published as an advertisement. Samiul Haq is in favor of vaccination because he thinks it safe for humans in context of medical research; and according to Islamic teachings, parents are required to vaccinate their children against avoidable diseases. But he wanted to hold it back till the on going peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban are finalized. He fears that the Taliban who oppose the immunization campaign will get irked by this move.

It was believed that Shakil Afridi, a Pakistani physician, helped lead the CIA to Bin Laden by conducting a fake vaccination campaign near his hideout in the city of Abbottabad. Initially, Sami ul-Haq had opposed polio vaccinations on the grounds that the campaign had been used to kill Bin Laden, but later issued the decree sensing the immunization’s importance to the children’s future.

Speaking at the press conference in mid-January alongside a visiting WHO delegation, to address the various problems facing the anti-polio campaign, Imran asserted that Dr. Afridi — and by extension his foreign employers — were responsible for the opposition to immunization.

Because of Dr. Afridi’s act, Imran explained, people have become suspicious of health workers. He reminded, “Polio health workers and policemen were not targeted prior to the Shakil Afridi incident.”

However, Pakistan’s critics, especially those who insist that Shakil Afridi is there hero, refuse to accept that it is they who are ultimately responsible for the hurdles facing the anti-polio campaign. Isn’t time that the American taxpayers ask who is responsible for endangering so many young lives, and especially the possible spread of polio elsewhere? Perhaps, WHO needs to educate rulers and policymakers in powerful countries that their self-interest can lead to acts of self-destruction. And memory should not fail that many of those waging the war against the western countries have resulted from the policy of creating fighters for hire to defeat the erstwhile Soviet Union.

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