Foreign Policy Blogs

Pakistan’s Polio Problem

Administering the oral drops

Administering the oral drops

Among Pakistan’s many problems—rampant power cuts, extremist violence, anemic economic growth, widespread poverty—it can seem puzzling that a disease that has claimed only 58 new victims in the last few years has commanded so much attention.

Polio, or poliomyelitis, has suffered a stunning defeat in the last 30 years, with a worldwide eradication rate of 99 percent since 1988. In 2012, there were only 223 reported cases. Yet, given its highly contagious nature, one infected child is all it takes to increase the risk of transmission across the globe.

Pakistan is one of only three countries where the disease continues to remain endemic, despite a well-funded and well-publicized campaign and nearly 200,000 polio workers. Unfortunately, domestic and international efforts to make Pakistan polio-free have resulted in some very unwanted attention on the eradication campaign.

In Pakistan, the vaccination process to prevent polio has become the victim of both Islamic fundamentalism and, surprisingly, the murky world of American espionage. The idea that vaccines are a government ruse to sterilize children has long persisted even outside Pakistan — India, which declared itself polio-free in 2011, had to battle rumors that polio vaccines were meant to sterilize Muslim children. Unfortunately, this fear found new legs in Pakistan with the revelation that the CIA organized fake vaccination camps to  capture Osama bin Laden. The revelation led to the widespread targeting of polio workers — 20 were brutally assassinated in three months, delivering a big blow to a campaign that depends on local volunteers to administer the vaccinations.

Workers aren’t the only victims. This Financial Times story includes a heartbreaking interview with a father of four who decided not to vaccinate his youngest child after hearing about the CIA program — only to have the child become the first polio victim of 2013. According to a new government report, over 172,000 children were deprived of the vaccination because parents refused to let polio workers administer the drops. Even worse, “373,000 children were missed during polio rounds whereas 250,000 children are inaccessible only due to the Taliban ban in North and South Waziristan.”

Refusing vaccination is not as irrational as it seems — the constant door-to-door administration of polio vaccination has ordinary Pakistanis questioning: with all the outsize problems I’m facing, why this constant focus on polio? These are not the Jenny McCarthys of the Western world, who, despite the evidence, continue to promote the idea that vaccines cause autism. Many of these families live surrounded by garbage and suffer through sweltering heat — conditions that contribute to the spread of the virus. Given the suspicions about vaccination, perhaps a less-publicized emphasis on vaccination, and a more robust effort to improve energy access, health and sanitation, could make the eradication campaign more effective.



Aarti Ramachandran

Aarti Ramachandran is currently pursuing a Masters Degree in International Affairs at Columbia University, New York, where she is specializing in energy policy with an emphasis on South Asia. She previously worked as public and government affairs advisor in the energy industry for five years. She holds a Masters degree in environmental engineering from Northwestern University and a Masters degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, Columbia.