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The Polio Jihad | Omar Ali

30 December 2013

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3 Quarks Daily - 30 December 2013

Polio is an ancient scourge that spreads only within human populations and can cause paralysis, most frequently of the lower extremities, but can also be fatal when the paralysis extends to the muscles of breathing. For reasons that are not completely clear, the disease erupted in huge epidemics from the late 19th century onwards, causing millions of victims to die or become paralyzed for life. Once a virus had been identified as the cause, the race was on to develop a vaccine. Finally, in 1952, Jonas Salk and his colleagues developed the first effective inactivated vaccine for this disease. Within a few years, mass vaccination decreased the number of victims in developed countries from hundreds of thousands to just a few hundred per year. In the mid-fifties, Albert Sabin and colleagues developed an effective live vaccine that was cheaper, easier to administer and provided better immunity and that was then adopted by the WHO as the main vaccine for use in endemic areas. Thanks to mass immunization campaigns, the number of victims dropped precipitously and by 1988 the WHO was ready to launch a well-coordinated international initiative to completely wipe out wild polio from the planet. Like smallpox, polio does not have an animal reservoir, so if human to human transmission is completely blocked by mass vaccination the disease can be effectively wiped out.

Initially, the campaign proceeded well, with the Americas being declared polio-free in 1994 and Europe in 2002. Today, there are only 3 countries where polio still remains endemic: Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. Unfortunately, the reason in all three is the same; the moronic wing of the international Jihadist movement has somehow picked up bits and pieces of chatter about risks from oral polio vaccine, combined it with pre-existing paranoia about modern international institutions, and created a robust anti-vaccine meme that is able to draw upon the ruthless killing power of Jihadi militias to effectively stop polio eradication campaigns in their area of influence.

I would like to clarify this a bit further:
the medical literature includes many scholarly papers about the possible reasons for vaccine resistance in different communities. Many of these reasons have nothing to do with Jihadism. In some cases, the community has no experience of modern medical care and has never seen government employees going door to door and giving something good away for free. There is extensive (and frequently, not unfounded) mistrust of foreigners and government workers. Sometimes the issue can become entangled in local politics (e.g. mistrust between the Nigerian federal government and the state governors in the Muslim North, or even the question of who has authority to conduct a campaign in such and such area). Then there are the technical and administrative hurdles in the way of establishing a “cold-chain” (keeping the vaccine refrigerated) and effectively reaching remote areas, and so on. But the WHO has long experience of dealing with such issues. They are not “Muslim-specific” issues and their solutions are also not Muslim-specific. Local governors may need to be sweet talked, community representatives may need to be invited on to committees and councils, religious leaders and others may need to be brought on board; all this is standard and has been tried. It has worked in places as lawless and anarchic as the Congo and as impoverished as Mozambique. What makes the situation in Pakistan and Nigeria unique is not these (“morally neutral”) factors, but the added factor of Jihadist intimidation and terrorism.
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