Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 166, 23 September 2020

Pakistan: The persisting polio problem
D. Suba Chandran

In the news
On 22 September 2020, Dawn reported the recovery of five polio workers, who were kidnapped earlier, while they were administering polio vaccine in Kohlu district in Balochistan. According to the report, the five men were kidnapped earlier by armed men.

On 21 September 2020, in another report, Dawn said so far in 2020 alone, there have been 73 cases of polio reported. In 2019, it was 147.

On 20 September 2020, another report published in Dawn referred to a larger problem relating to Polio in the province of Punjab. Titled, "63pc of environmental samples in Punjab test positive for the poliovirus," the report said: "The initiative for the eradication of polio from the country seems to have hit a snag in Punjab as the crippling disease is on the brink of an outbreak apparently due to the apathy of the government, risking the health and lives of millions of vulnerable children across the province. An official report has exposed the efforts of the health authorities and the programme managers after Punjab reported a 63 per cent positive rate of the environmental samples collected from across the province." Recently, in August, the World Health Organization declared Africa Polio free. However, in Asia, it remains a problem for Pakistan and Afghanistan.

On 20 September, the Chairman of Pakistan Ulema Council addressed a press conference to state: "Pakistan Ulema Council, Darul Afta Pakistan, Wafaq-ul-Masajid, Madaris-i-Pakistan and leading ulema and mashaikh have already termed polio drops not only halal but also beneficial for people and decrees have been issued that there is nothing harmful or haram in polio drops."

Issues at large
First, the issue of governance and the spending on health – at the national and provincial levels. The issue of polio cannot be seen in isolation and should be viewed as a part of a larger governance issue facing the health sector both at the national and provincial levels. Many critics within, say that the awareness campaigns need an effective strategy.

Second, the reluctance at the societal level, especially in rural areas. A section within the society is reluctant to see polio as a health problem; unfortunately, they see it as a part of a conspiracy aimed at reducing the population. Another issue is - whether vaccination was halal or not. The conservative section, especially at the rural areas look at the vaccination from non-health perspective. In this context, awareness campaigns become important. Like that of the statement from the Pakistan Ulema Council, more such statements from the religious, political and health sectors need to be a part of a larger campaign.

Third, the threats against the polio health workers. As happened in Balochistan last week, kidnapping and attacking the polio workers have become a security issue for those who are working hard. Given the size of Pakistan and the need to carry out vaccination, the State needs to provide better security to the polio workers. They have become an easy target for the militants; and the last few many years, many polio workers have lost their lives not only to the militants but also to societal miscreants.

In perspective
Pakistan needs a larger campaign to create better awareness to address the polio problem. It needs to find innovative ways to increase awareness, and also address the apprehensions at the societal level.

Pakistan also needs to invest more in the health sector. The issue is just not finding polio workers to do a job, but to strengthen the health sector at the grassroots level and to provide institutional support to the workers – not only working on polio.

Third, security for the polio workers. The State will have to work towards not only providing better security but also better travel and accommodation arrangements.

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