Taliban renews opposition to polio vaccination

Published 16 April 2009

Taliban in Pakistan’s northwest territories and Afghanistan renew their campaign against vaccination of children against polio; clerics describe vaccination as “Western plot”; Taliban fighters have attacked vaccination teams in Pakistan’s Swat valley; Islamic clerics in northern Nigeria have embarked on similar campaign

The Pakistani Taliban are again preventing public health teams from vaccinating children against polio. The Taliban leadership says this is not exactly true, that the real issue is recognizing who is in charge in the Swat Valley, where the Islamic radicals and the federal government are disputing who is giving orders for what. In the recent past, the Taliban have actively opposed efforts to prevent outbreaks of polio.

Strategic Page reports that two years ago, the Afghan Taliban backed off on their opposition to polio vaccinations for children. As a result, there were only 17 cases in 2007, and 31 in 2008. Most of those were “leakage” from Pakistan, where the local Taliban were not as understanding with regard to polio treatment. Radical Islamic clerics in Pakistan took the lead in pushing the idea that vaccinations for diseases are a Western plot to poison Moslem children. This particular fantasy has been rattling around for nearly a decade, and has prevented the UN from wiping out polio.

As is the case with small pox, which was wiped out in the 1970s, once there are no people with polio, the disease is gone for good. This is because it can only survive in a human host or, like small pox, as a few samples, frozen in a heavily guarded government lab. The Islamic clerics, in urging parents not to vaccinate their children against polio, have, in effect, provided the disease with hosts, and keep it going. In 2006, 24,000 children were not vaccinated in northern Pakistan because of the clerics. In Afghanistan it was even worse, with 125,000 children denied vaccination by the Taliban that year (Taliban fighters, to make their point, attack the vaccination teams). It took a major information and diplomatic effort by more moderate clerics and politicians to turn the situation around. The paranoid opposition to vaccinations, however, always seems to return.

The victims, usually children, either die or are crippled for life. When confronted by angry parents, the Taliban say that it is “God’s will” that the kid is dead or crippled from polio. Popular anger at this Taliban policy forced many radical clerics to drop their opposition to polio vaccinations.

Note that Islamic radicals in northern Nigeria have been waging a similar campaign against medical personnel trying to wipe out polio.