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Ignorance hinders battle against polio

[Pakistan] Inayatullah (right), the health minister, administers polio drops.
Vaccination efforts are key to making Pakistan polio-free (IRIN)

Two-year-old Fazalullah will be crippled for life. He is too young to understand but members of his family, who live in Metakhel village in Bannu District, 160 km south of Peshawar, provincial capital of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP), know the toll polio has taken on his body.

Since January five children have tested positive for the debilitating disease in NWFP. Nationwide there have been 12 cases this year.

The country’s Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) said the cases were less genetically diverse than in previous years.

The number of cases, though less in the past, is still worrying for health officials and the World Health Organization (WHO), which has taken an active role in managing and coordinating Pakistan's Polio Eradication Initiative (PEI) since 1994.

Health officials believe the number of cases in NWFP is linked to the spread of the crippling disease in neighbouring Afghanistan, where the number of cases is reported to have quadrupled in 2006. At least two of the cases in NWFP had been linked to strains of the virus originating in Afghanistan, health officials said.

However, the GPEI said Pakistan remained one of only four countries, the others being Afghanistan, Nigeria and India, where polio remained endemic.

Pakistan had teams of people visiting millions of homes to vaccinate people but it was not an easy process.

Alamzeb, a PEI district support officer, said Fazalullah's family had been refusing to have their children vaccinated for two years.

He said Fazalullah's father, Khalilur Rehman, claimed he practiced medicine in the district and did "not believe in vaccinations".

Local health officials said he had no qualifications and was one of the thousands of quacks operating across the country.

The refusal of parents to allow their children to be given the Oral Polio Vaccine (OPV) was a growing issue in Bannu District and other parts of NWFP, health officials said. They feared the resistance to immunisation was spreading, notably to the southern province of Sindh.

Ignorance, rumours that the vaccine caused infertility and that the programme was ‘anti-Islamic’ were all factors in the refusal of parents to vaccinate, officials said.

Fazalullah had received only one dose of the OPV in two years, and that was when he was in the care of someone outside his immediate family.

However, the other four children diagnosed with polio in NWFP had received multiple doses. The PEI and the WHO were investigating why they had fallen ill.

In July this year, in a move that has fuelled the rumours circulating in some communities, the High Court began hearing a petition filed by Ghulam Nabi, a Peshawar resident.

The petition called for the US $167 million polio eradication programme to be stopped, claiming that the vaccine contained high levels of the hormone estrogen, which can affect human reproduction. The court has sought responses from the government and the WHO, which has denied the claim.

Naseer Khan, Pakistan's health minister, and Dr Abraham Mullugutta, the WHO's PEI team leader in the country, called on people to ensure children aged under five were vaccinated.

Dr Mullugutta said the reason the vaccine had apparently failed in some cases could be because the children were already ill.

Pakistani health authorities said they were determined to wipe out polio.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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