Alex Constantine - March 31, 2013
" ... Guns and vaccine do not go together ... "
Photo: A schoolgirl received a polio vaccine near Islamabad, Pakistan, on Thursday, the same day that a roadside bomb killed two Pakistani polio workers traveling by motorcycle in a northwestern district near Afghanistan. It was the third such attack in one week.
Islamabad -- Although belated, the World Health Organisation (WHO) finally broke its silence on the controversial issue of intelligence gathering by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Abbottabad under the guise of a fake vaccination campaign conducted to nab Osama Bin Laden back in 2011.
Admitting that the CIA-led operation had hurt the campaign considerably, the international health agency’s acting country representative Dr. Ni’ma Saeed Abid publically condemned “the use of any public health initiative for any purpose other than the promotion of community and child health.” He said his analysis of the harm inflicted on the health campaign by the Dr. Shakeel Afridi incident was based on media reports.
Addressing a press conference held on Friday, Dr. Ni’ma said, neither the government of Pakistan nor the partners assisting this country in its fight against polio had an inkling of any such clandestine activity going on in Abbottabad. “WHO strongly reaffirms the absolute neutrality of public health programmes and condemns the use of any health intervention for any purpose other than the promotion and protection of health,” he reiterated. Dr. Ni’ma was flanked by Dr. Abdul Wahab and Dr. Zubair Mufti, both of them polio workers from WHO.
When asked if it was not too late in the day for WHO to be expressing disapproval of the CIA-led operation, Dr. Ni’ma said, the WHO’s primary responsibility is to assist the government of Pakistan in its efforts for the promotion of health. “The government came out strong in condemning the incident, and since we work with the government, a condemnation on our part at that time would have been akin to stating the obvious. Today, we feel the need to do so in the light of the recommendations of the Cairo consultation led by the Al-Azhar institution on March 6-7,” he said.
Dr. Ni’ma informed that the Cairo consultation, which was attended by Islamic scholars from different parts of the Islamic world, denounced the attacks on health workers, facilities, and services in Pakistan and Nigeria as actions against Islamic principles and teachings. It confirmed that the polio vaccine is safe; that vaccination is necessary to eradicate polio from the remaining three Muslims countries; and that Muslims are obliged to vaccinate and protect their children. The conference also proposed the establishment of an Islamic Advisory Group to build ownership and solidarity for polio eradication across the Islamic world under the leadership of Al-Azhar in collaboration with the Islamic Fiqh Academy.
Talking to this scribe about the recent attacks on polio teams in which 15 people have sacrificed their lives since July 2012 for the sake of securing the future of Pakistani children, Dr. Ni’ma expressed confidence that “logic will win sooner than later.” He added, “Even though the government deployed over 1,000 policemen for smooth conduct of the last polio campaign, my own feeling is that guns and vaccine do not go together. We need to promote community ownership of the vaccination drive so that the masses themselves are empowered to stand up against forces opposed to administration of polio drops to children.”
Replying to a question regarding uncertainty about the future of the polio eradication initiative after the accession of a new government following the May 2013 general elections, Dr. Ni’ma said, “My expectation is that the high level resolve demonstrated by the previous government will continue when the next government comes into power.” He said that since Pakistan, along with Afghanistan and Nigeria, is the only country with poliovirus circulation, whichever new government comes into power will want to take the initiative forward with greater steam.
Commenting on the ban on polio immunisation by Taliban, Dr. Ni’ma said, 240,000 children have remained unimmunised in North and South Waziristan since June 2013, this being a worrying phenomenon for WHO and the polio eradication partners. Pakistan, he said, has reported 5 cases of polio so far in 2013. “Even five cases at this stages are cases too many,” he said.
Pakistan saw great progress in 2012, with a 71% reduction in the number of polio cases in a single year. The number of cases declined from 198 in 2011 to 58 in 2012. The number of infected districts too also fell to 28 from 60 in 2011. Polio transmission is now concentrated in central KP, Fata, high-risk towns of Karachi, and the Quetta block (Killa Abdullah, Pishin and Quetta).
Dr. Ni’ma also informed ‘The News’ that an International Islamic Conference to be held in Islamabad, tentatively on April 23-24, is currently in the planning stages. He was confident that the said forum could serve as an effective rallying point for implementation of effective strategies to overcome the remaining hurdles in way of making Pakistan polio-free.