Opposition to anti-polio drive weakens

Local opposition to polio eradication efforts in western Pakistan is declining, health experts claim.

“The refusal rate has decreased. The coverage has improved,” Waheed Khan, a government coordinator for the anti-polio drive in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP), told IRIN from Peshawar, the provincial capital, on 12 November, citing stronger awareness and public acceptance.

His comments follow a three-day national campaign this month to immunise 33.6 million children under the age of five and employing close to 86,000 trained door-to-door vaccination teams.

Initial indicators provided by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO), in collaboration with the government, suggest 31.1 million children have been reached.

“Preliminary reports suggest this was a better campaign - even better coverage than before,” Melissa Corkum, a spokeswoman for UNICEF, said.

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This is welcome news in NWFP, described by the agency as one of the chief reservoirs of the polio virus in the world, where polio immunisation campaigns are held up to eight times annually.

WHO maintains that the world’s success in eradicating polio, a debilitating disease mainly striking children, depends on four countries where the virus remains endemic – India, Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But health officials have long faced difficulties in conservative NWFP, where many parents continue to refuse to immunise their children, believing the oral vaccine drops will make them impotent.

In Bajaur, one of seven tribal agencies comprising the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA), an area surgeon and his assistants were killed in a bomb blast earlier this year after a meeting to promote the polio drive.

But according to Khalid Nawaz, a WHO senior surveillance officer in Peshawar, that opposition is waning after a jirga (council of tribal elders) meeting.

At the last immunisation in August, the number of recorded refusals in all of NWFP was just over 50,000, while in this round there were 39,012.

Photo: Kamila Hyat/IRIN
A mother and child at a WHO polio vaccination centre in NWFP. There have been 16 confirmed cases of polio in Pakistan this year alone

Parents persuaded

Moreover, of the 17,894 recorded refusals in FATA, health officials were later able to change the minds of parents in 8,566 cases.

“That’s nearly 50 percent,” Nawaz said, adding that they were actively targeting the right opposition groups – particularly religious leaders.

Meanwhile, in southwestern Balochistan province, where opposition to polio vaccinations has long been reported, inroads are being made via the mobilisation of religious and community leaders, as well as the careful placement of media messages, resulting in increased demand for the vaccine by parents, said UNICEF’s Corkum.

Maulana Matheen, a prominent religious leader and active supporter of the polio campaign in Quetta, the provincial capital, believes awareness has been heightened, particularly through mosques and religious teachings.

“People come to the mosque five times a day to pray and respect the teachings of religious preachers. That being the case, religion is a powerful tool in Pakistan in getting the message out,” he told IRIN.