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Sentenced to deformity

When I was a small boy in Scotland, a long time ago, there was a much-feared disease called infantile paralysis. Nobody I knew contracted it, but when you visited somebody in hospital you would see children of your own age on crutches or wearing callipers on their legs and realise that this was a terrible affliction.

It is now known as poliomyelitis, polio for short, and those most at risk are infants. In 1952 there was a dreadful epidemic in the US that killed over 3,000 children and paralysed another 21,000.

But two saintly geniuses called Hilary Koprowski and Jonas Salk separately developed anti-polio vaccines which quickly came into use, after which occurrence of the affliction declined dramatically all over the world. Then another angelic figure, Doctor Sabin, created an oral vaccine which made it easier to immunise children against the dreadful disease which caused so much suffering, and it is that type of medication which is now in common use.

It has been welcomed as a life-saving treatment around the world – except by such as Pakistan’s lunatic Taliban whose ignorance and bigotry have condemned many children to death or a horrible life of deformity. The Taliban threaten and even kill those who seek to save the lives of children. Their campaign against use of anti-polio medication is cruel and wicked.

The world has forgotten – indeed most people have never known – the scourge of polio and how terrifying it is. After infliction, some of those left alive might recover completely, which is a blessing, but many have to live with malformed limbs forever, because paralysis, usually of the legs, is irreversible. There is no cure once you are crippled by polio. And the life of a deformed child can be dire indeed, especially in poor families in remote areas of Pakistan.

I was prompted to write about polio by the news from Bara in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa that “militants kidnapped teachers involved in a polio vaccination campaign for school children” which is the sort of headline that does Pakistan no good at all in international terms, but, of much more importance, makes it even more difficult for children in the tribal agencies to be protected against polio in the future.

This is worse than scandalous – it is criminal. The moronic thug who directed the Bara abduction is called Mangal Bagh and it was reported that he and his barbarous followers “are opposing polio vaccination for children and don’t allow teams to immunise children in their areas.” May they rot in perdition for eternity.

So far this year 27 children in North Waziristan have been paralysed by polio – and that’s the number we know of. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative is most careful in gathering information, and its figures indicate that “nowhere in any of the endemic countries has more polio than North Waziristan.”

There are only two other countries with endemic polio. In Nigeria, for example, ‘Islamic extremists often preach against polio vaccinations, saying they are part of a western plot to sterilise Muslims’, while in chaotic Afghanistan many loony mullahs and their ignorant adherents join the club to kill and maim children.

To be fair, there are some religious leaders who possess more common sense than unthinking malevolence, and it was recorded by the UK’s Independent newspaper that “Maulana Bilal Ahmed, a cleric in the Gulshan area in Karachi, said he had noticed the incidence of polio had reduced where children were given the vaccination. He now tells people to ensure their youngsters are vaccinated. He also debates the issue with other clerics. ‘I always ask them for proof that the vaccine is harmful,’ he said. ‘They cannot provide any, so that means I always win’.”

But his lonely voice is overwhelmed by an evil cacophony of intolerance, and it seems that nothing is being done to enforce rule of law against fanatics whose actions lead to death and deformity.

Of course the politicians in Islamabad don’t want Pakistan’s children to be crippled by polio. But they seem to be powerless in the face of fanatics who are intent on defying common sense, humanity and the laws of the country that has tolerated them for too long. (And their kids are immunised, of course.)

According to the Health Canal newswire “Approximately 350,000 children in Fata have not received polio vaccines during immunisation campaigns conducted since mid-2012. In other areas of Pakistan, polio vaccination teams have encountered increased security threat-levels, hindering immunisation programmes.”

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative is even blunter, in that “The situation in North Waziristan is increasingly alarming. It is the area with the largest number of children being paralysed by poliovirus in all of Asia. Immunisation activities have been suspended by local leaders since June 2012. It is critical that children in these areas are vaccinated and protected from poliovirus.”

Quite so: but remember the Swat Taliban’s spokesman, Muslim Khan, who declared that vaccination is “a US tool to cut the population of the Muslims. It is against Islam that you take a medicine before the disease.” This is wicked nonsense.

The Quran states that for every illness there is a cure, and advises on living hygienically, including instruction about tooth-brushing, hand-washing and exercise, all of which are protective measures intended to head-off disease and disability. It is sadly obvious that the Taliban condemn children to death because they are incapable of understanding the basics of pre-emptive medication and common sense healthcare.

What can be done to save the lives of children? There is no point in arguing with blinkered fanatics. None whatsoever, because they accept neither reason nor fact. The solution, alas, lies in force, because that is the only way to defeat the monsters. Those responsible for menacing and murdering the people who administer polio vaccine must be subjected to justice. With luck this will involve encounters with the forces of law and order that will be as terminal as exposure to polio.

The writer is a South Asian affairs analyst. Website: www.beecluff.com

Brian Cloughley, "Sentenced to deformity," The News. 2013-12-02.
Keywords: Social sciences , Social rights , Child rights , Social needs , Taliban-Pakistan , Polio vaccine , Children , Extremism , Politicians , Muslims , Humanity , Quran , Polio , Maulana Bilal Ahmed , Hilary Koprowski , Jonas Salk , Pakistan , Scotland , Khyber Pakhtunkhwa , United States , Waziristan