Whenever Safa sees her father readying the brace, she fidgets and sobs. It’s not very comfortable and already too small, but without it the 2-year-old Pakistani girl would crumple to the floor.
Safa’s right leg is paralyzed, and Tahir Wali now realizes his daughter’s plight was wholly avoidable. The girl’s grandmother repeatedly turned away polio vaccination teams from the family’s front door, convinced that the vaccine sterilizes girls. Like many Pakistanis, she bought into rumors spun by fundamentalist imams who denounce polio vaccination campaigns as a Western plot.
“My mother believed there was a conspiracy to use polio vaccines to keep population growth down by suppressing the fertility rate,” Wali says, cradling Safa in his arms inside his family’s tiny two-room house in the northwestern city of Peshawar. “I should have intervened, but I didn’t.”
In the Western world, polio is largely a forgotten disease, an anachronism that conjures up images of iron lungs and March of Dimes posters. In Pakistan, however, polio remains a scourge that international health organizations have failed to eradicate.
As of Oct. 13, 111 cases of polio had been recorded this year in Pakistan — second only to the African nation of Chad, where 114 cases have been reported this year. Last year, Pakistan logged 144 cases of polio. Today, Pakistan is one of just four countries where polio is deemed endemic; the other three are Afghanistan, India and Nigeria.
Several factors have stood in the way of eradication. In the country’s volatile tribal areas along the Afghan border, the war against Islamic militants has made it difficult for vaccination teams to make the rounds in villages and towns, where cases of polio continue to spread. The migration of Pakistanis from the country’s northwest to densely populated cities such as Karachi and Quetta has further spread the disease.
Underlying those factors, however, is an intense mistrust among some Pakistanis for the vaccines and the people who supply and administer them. Radical clerics seed rumors that vaccines are un-Islamic because they are made from substances derived from pigs, or that they cause infertility. Some clerics try to convince parents that polio vaccines are made from the urine of Satan.
The reluctance by some Pakistanis to trust polio vaccination programs is also driven by a belief that the U.S. is behind the campaigns. Anti-American sentiments are more fervent than ever in the country, stoked this year by the case of CIA contractor Raymond Davis, who shot to death two Pakistanis in Lahore in January, as well as by President Obama’s decision to not inform Pakistani leaders in advance about the U.S. operation against Osama bin Laden in the city of Abbottabad in May.
Parents’ fears about polio immunization drives were compounded by a CIA-orchestrated phony vaccination campaign aimed at obtaining DNA evidence from Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad in the weeks before the U.S. commando raid that killed him.