Polio has made a Comeback and the US Government is partially to Blame
It was in the 1930s when two strains of the poliovirus were first discovered. These strains are two of the three responsible for polio, an illness that mostly targets children. The symptoms of polio can vary from mild and flu-like to severe complications affecting the brain and spinal cord. The severe form of polio is also referred to as paralytic polio and is characterized by paralysis and atrophy.
Since 1988, the number of cases has reduced significantly by more than 99%. As the risk of polio began to decrease, so did the fear. Much of this success of ridding polio is attributed to the inexpensive oral vaccines provided by government officials and healthcare providers. Despite this, countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria are currently witnessing outbreaks of the disease return. Polio is a global health crisis and will remain so until the world is completely free from it. The virus rapidly spreads from human to human transmission. It takes a few weeks after a person is infected with the poliovirus for the symptoms to appear. This gives the virus time to silently spread to others before it is detected in the population. This is problematic as people become more vary of vaccines. As less people vaccinate their children, the higher the risk is of polio returning globally. The World Health Organization boldly stated that as long as one single child is infected with polio, children in all countries remain at risk.
So why are people in areas with polio outbreaks not receiving their vaccinations? The answer requires an understanding of the political dynamics of the regions hit with the recent outbreaks. Certain regions of Pakistan are unsecured and controlled by militant groups such as the Taliban. The military fight between the United States and the Taliban has left the region unstable. A major consequence of this has led to a mistrust of healthcare providers thereby making people reluctant to get their vaccinations. This mistrust in healthcare officials is one of the defining factors that led to the Pakistan outbreak. The BBC reported that militant groups stationed in the Northwestern regions of Pakistan are warning people from receiving vaccines from healthcare providers. Many even claim these workers are spies working for the US government. It appears that due to this mistrust in healthcare professionals, less people are vaccinating their children, which further increases the burden.
The outbreak in Pakistan was first reported in 2013, after there was a 57% increase in the number of cases from the 90s. By 2014, polio in Pakistan hit its highest with more than 202 cases being reported. Between December 2012 and 2014 the Taliban killed more than 60 people in the Northwestern region of the country. Many of the people killed were healthcare workers and police officers protecting the workers. According to the Guardian, militant groups began to attack healthcare workers at a higher magnitude after a CIA funded program to use them as a tool to capture Osama Bin Laden was uncovered. As the BBC reports, the CIA had in fact set up hepatitis B vaccine campaigns near Bin Laden’s hiding place as a pretense to obtain genetic material from citizens in the region. Once this information was exposed to the public, it only fuelled people’s hatred and mistrust of foreign aid and healthcare providers. In fact, the NY times reported that a campaign in 2012 to vaccinate over 161 000 children from polio in Pakistan was blocked by the Taliban. However, it is more than simply blocking accessibility to vaccines. Reports show that parents are reluctant to allow foreign aid to vaccinate their children. Much of this is trickled down from the current tension between countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the United States. It appears there is a lot of propaganda against the United States in these countries making people unwilling to get help from aid agencies.
There are many lessons to be learned from the recent polio outbreak in Pakistan. First, it is vital to separate healthcare from military action. The polio outbreak only proves how unethical it is to use healthcare workers as a guise for the military to spy on potential threats. Putting the lives of civilians at risk of disease should never be the solution to stopping terrorism. Things could have been different and more people might be willing to vaccinate their children if there was no threat from the Taliban and the United States on civilians in Pakistan. The vaccines would become more accessible in these regions considering how inexpensive and easy to administer they are. This would lead to less children being infected. Second, national governments need to play a larger role in healthcare and need to do more to fight against terrorism in their own countries. Endorsement from the Nation’s government can help increase trust in people. After the outbreak, then Prime Minister of Pakistan endorsed the National Emergency Action Plan for Polio Eradication. Since this endorsement, the number of polio cases in Pakistan has dropped. If the Pakistan government communicated with the public to ease their scepticism against aid sooner, these outbreaks could have potentially been prevented at an earlier stage. The government also needs to provide better security to healthcare workers to prevent future attacks targeting them from occurring.
People need to trust their healthcare providers and healthcare providers need to give people reason to trust them. When understanding why people have these mistrusts in vaccines, there is always a source that fuels these dangerous beliefs. In this case, it was the US government that gave the Taliban reason to convince citizens not to trust healthcare workers. These viewpoints that vaccines are dangerous often impact children more than anybody else. If the world takes lessons from this outbreak into consideration, future outbreaks can be avoided. At the end of the day, the best way to gain people’s trust is to be trustworthy.