Polio killings a major setback

Child receiving polio vaccine Vaccination is key to controlling the disease

The killing of eight polio workers in Pakistan in two days is a brutal reminder of the hurdles facing health teams trying to eradicate the virus from one of its few remaining strongholds.

Pakistan, along with Afghanistan and Nigeria are the only countries where polio is endemic, which means transmission of the virus has never been halted.

The shootings, in a series of attacks, represent a major setback in the quest for a polio-free world.

The decision by the UN to suspend the immunisation campaign is understandable but deeply regrettable.

So far this year there have been 56 cases in Pakistan - a significant reduction on the nearly 200 cases last year.

Unless immunisation is re-started promptly it will allow the virus time to spread and infect more children. It will also risk the disease spreading beyond Pakistan's borders to India, which has been polio-free for more than a year.

The virus is highly contagious and spreads through the faecal-oral route - via contaminated water or food. It can damage the central nervous system causing paralysis and even death.

Karachi - where four female health workers were shot yesterday is one of a number of areas in Pakistan where wild poliovirus is being spread. The others are districts in the Balochistan Province, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Health officials point out that Pakistan and neighbouring Afghanistan repeatedly re-infect one another due to significant population movements between the countries.

Vaccine myths

Who carried out the killings in Pakistan is unclear but the Taliban have repeatedly denounced the polio vaccination campaign claiming the workers are acting as spies for the US and that the virus causes sterility or HIV/AIDS.

Claims that the vaccine programme is a plot against Muslims have been around for years. They reached their peak in northern Nigeria in 2003 - when the immunisation programme was suspended following claims that the vaccine was contaminated with oestrogen and would cause infertility.

The year-long suspension of polio immunisation led to a major resurgence of the disease in Nigeria with hundreds of children becoming disabled.

When I visited Kano in northern Nigeria in 2005 the authorities had re-started the immunisation programme and religious leaders were voicing their support. But the global impact of the ban had been immense.

Infected travellers had carried the virus to nearly 20 previously polio-free countries causing more than 1200 polio cases.

UN officials in Nigeria told me they had switched to a polio vaccine produced in Indonesia - a predominantly Muslim country - which they hoped would allay any fears about its safety.

The oral polio drops used in the developing world are made from a live weakened virus - which carries a minute risk of causing polio in every million doses given. But the dangers from not being immunised are far higher.

Some of the bizarre myths about the polio vaccine persist in Pakistan, but there are other problems too.

Militants in parts of Pakistan's tribal regions are reported to have said the vaccination programme can't go forward until the US stops drone attacks in the country.

Last year a Pakistani doctor ran a fake vaccination programme to help the CIA track down Osama bin Laden. That has put all immunisation campaigns - especially those with international links - under suspicion.

In a report last month the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative said significant progress had been made in Pakistan in 2012.

Increased pay for vaccinators in some key areas and a drop in the number of parents refusing immunisation for their children were both seen as positive signs.

But the report pointed to an earlier killing of two polio workers as a "tragic and important reminder of the bravery of polio staff".

This is yet another key moment in the battle against polio. The tragic killings in Karachi could have profound long-term consequences for the health of children in Pakistan and beyond.

Fergus Walsh Article written by Fergus Walsh Fergus Walsh Medical correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    61. Scrooge-McDuck - if you read the article you will find that the sourcing of vaccine from Muslim Indonesia helped to increase the uptake of the vaccine. Given that rest of the Islamic world shares the benefits of being polio free, surely it should be the Red Crescent, found in both Sunni & Shia countries who should be leading this.

  • Comment number 69.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    This is sickening to say the least !!!

    I'm sure the western world would take a different stance if Pakistan was an oil rich nation.

    But i guess if that was the case we wouldn't be in this predicament in the first place.

  • Comment number 67.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    64.mikeb - "With these countries and cultures that are seemingly stuck in the Middle Ages socially and ethically...."

    Nothing like using a public forum to show your ignorance huh? These countries are not stuck anywhere, merely certain elements within their population....

    ....like how the US has the Tea Party, we have UKIP & so on.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    I take it you don't believe men landed in the moon either. Blind stupidity is no excuse to do nothing.

    Unfortunately I think you're right. It's time to say no more and let them get on with it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    With these countries and cultures that are seemingly stuck in the Middle Ages socially and ethically I sadly believe there is no point attempting to engage or help in this way.Life is worthless to them,charity and understanding alien.Leave these people to their countries and their way of life don't interfere.

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.


    "Religion You can`t see it touch or taste it but it make lots of people do stupid things....."

    And it makes them dead, don't forget that. Let's face it, there only seems to be one religion causing trouble throughout the world.

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    Apart from three decades of war, the loopy Talibans and fundamentalists, misuse/abuse of the Pakistan Army by US. It is surprising to see that country still there. A country is made by its own people, with a President who cannot write his own name and most parliamentarians with only vested interests. Hostility towards vaccination! or any program designed for the welfare is a blessing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    @ 21- Notjustme:

    Great idea: let Teheran try to talk the Taliban into a vaccination programme. I am sure their long and well-recorded history of hostility towards each other will not be an obstacle to that plan in any way.

    Please try not to churn out half-witted suggestions for areas about which you do not have sufficient knowledge.

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    59. penguin337

    "Why are they in Pakisan????

    We have massive poverty in the UK.

    Help people here, let the people in Pakistan help themselves"

    we clearly have massive ignorance in the UK too...

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    Why are they in Pakisan????

    We have massive poverty in the UK

    Help people here, let the people in Pakistan help themselves

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    It's disgusting, they moan we owe them for the sins of our great grandfathers. Those that try to help them are killed on religious grounds, or kidnapped for financial gain. It's time to say sorry but if you want to be 3rd world forever, we will no longer be sending aid to sustain it. I do feel sorry for the moderate majority amongst them, but when there's no more aid, maybe they will do something.

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    John (55) I am speechless at the deliberate ignorance of your post.

    Polio is a very well understood disease which has been eradicated in all but three countries as a result of a massive immunisation effort. The many thousands of people involved in this are to be applauded.

    With thinking like yours we'd still be living in the dark ages, like the peoples of Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    So we can study a virus, show its presence and it is understood across the known world by all scientists. John (55) someone once suggested sunspots as the cause of mutation of the flu virus and I find your claims a lot more incredulous. To eradicate the cause of so much suffering based on real evidence other than coincidence is a real campaign for good. What a shame those with guns don't think.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    Firstly, there is no evidence whatsoever that Polio is a virus The evidence points to poisoning by DDT and other insecticides which got into milk supplies causing paralysis If you look at the chart of the removal of these insecticides from sprays, and the incidence of Polio, they are almost an identical fit. I understand DDT is still used n Nigeria Coincidence?

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    Are the Taliban ALL bad (like politicains, bankers, football fans, men etc)?

  • Comment number 53.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    Re 41: You are spot on. Abandon these savages to their lot. The only way the mania of the Taliban will be overcome, is when the people sweep them away. But yet, the people protect and hide them. Let them butcher each other until they're satisfied. But lets withdraw all Western aid, money, and people. If they behave like savages, leave them to it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    Its a bit like saying since Bush Jr. was a moron, all Americans were too. Taliban, halfwit politicians are being heard, if you talk to parents in Pakistan, I am sure they'll all want immunisation for their children. UN should not have to leave Pak, Taliban have to. Condolances to the family and friends of the volunteers. All for a noble cause.


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