Eradicating polio becomes complicated in war zones.
Almost 57 years after Jonas Salk introduced his vaccine against polio, we almost have placed the disease into extinction. The disease is endemic in parts of only three countries—Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria. However, resistance to ending the disease is coming from an ominous source; assassins.
Polio vaccines: a plot against Muslims
This month, nine health workers (so far) have been killed in Pakistan during their efforts to eradicate the polio virus there. While no group has claimed responsibility for the murders, speculation has centered on the Taliban, who have claimed that the polio vaccine is part of a plot against Muslims. In addition, other health policy experts have warned that the successful killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan by the US Navy may have ominous side effects.
This warning stems from the fact that, in order to pinpoint Bin Laden’s whereabouts, US and other intelligence agencies dispatched agents traveling under the guise of public health workers, so they could gather DNA samples from people living in the compound where bin Laden also was suspected of living. Several health experts warned that retribution would come from terrorist organizations within Pakistan; public health workers would, at least, be regarded with more suspicion than before.
The government of Pakistan has ordered a temporary halt to vaccination efforts against polio. However, public health agencies vow to continue vaccination programs in the long-term. Pakistan had the world’s highest number of polio cases in 2011, with 175. In 2012, that number dropped to just over 50. Public health workers, meanwhile, hope that Pakistan’s events will not be a mirror of Nigeria in 2003. There, a boycott by local religious leaders led to a spike in new polio cases, which spread to other African countries which had freed themselves of the disease.
Image Credit: Unicef