Junkfood Science: Suffer the little children

December 26, 2008

Suffer the little children

Medical and human rights organizations talk about the need to safeguard children and help ensure all children are vaccinated against the most crippling of preventable childhood diseases, but we rarely hear about efforts to dispel anti-vaccination myths by groups beyond our borders. Most of us would probably find it inconceivable that anti-vaccination junkscience, especially targeting innocent children, would be used for political purposes to spread hate.

Well-to-do parents in upscale regions of the United State may have more of a luxury to follow specious anti-vaccination myths because the costs aren’t nearly as deadly as they are for parents in some regions of the world. Millions of parents struggle every day against disease, poverty and lack of basic educational opportunities for their children. These same areas have rising rates and re-emergences of childhood diseases that have been mostly eradicated here. Like polio. Yet, these are the very same areas where anti-vaccine propaganda has been the most intense.

This tragic and ongoing story has been virtually ignored in mainstream media here. It’s as if facts are un-politically correct, somehow. But each development over recent years has become more horrifying than the last.

Today, the Times in the UK reported that the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban, which has control over a large part of the Swat district in Pakistan (North West Frontier Province along the border with Afghanistan), has ordered the closure of all girls’ schools, and threatened parents and teachers of dire consequences if their ban is not complied with. It is not an idle threat. Militant Taliban have destroyed more than 125 schools for girls in the region this year and more than half of all girls have stopped attending school because of the threats. According to the Pakistan Coalitions for Education, these represent nearly a quarter of the 490 schools that teach girls in Swat.

As the Daily Times reported today, the Taliban has issued a January 15th deadline otherwise they will bomb all schools that allow girls to get an education. “We cannot say anything because the people and the whole government is helpless before the armed people,” said one social worker in Swat. This is the future of these girls.

Attacks on education for girls isn’t confined to the Swat district. As the Times reports, over the past two years a hundred schools have been burned down in other tribal areas, leaving countless children with no access to education.

According to Afghanistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, UN ambassador Dr. Tanin spoke at a UN Security Council meeting on December 19th, describing how the lives of children, especially girls, have been devastated by terrorists. “Terrorists are recruiting, training, and exploiting children as combatants and suicide bombers,” he said. They not only attack civilians who oppose them, but “they attack international workers and create an environment where humanitarian aid cannot reach those who most desperately need it. Vulnerable girl students are a main target of intimidation. A few days after this report was completed, a brutal acid attack on fifteen young girls on their way to school blinded some and permanently scarred others.” He urged the UN Council to not downplay the seriousness of the threat. “It is the Taliban and other terrorists groups that remain the main violator of human rights, including children's rights, in Afghanistan,” he said. He urged the UN to not only condemn the use and recruitment of children for terrorists activities, but these continued attacks on schools and healthcare providers, and “in particular, the use of barbaric tactics to repress and intimidate girls.”

Terrorist efforts have crippled children’s futures in another way. Muslim clerics have prohibited polio immunizations for children and used propaganda and violence in their anti-vaccination efforts.

Government health officials, the UN and other relief agencies have been working for years to get polio and other immunizations to children. When health officials seem to have made peace agreements with Taliban leaders to allow vaccines to reach children in regions they control, it’s repeatedly been followed by polio vaccination programs coming to a grinding halt. Dr. Waheed Khan, health director for the city of Peshawar, and a former official with the state’s Expanded Programme of Immunisation (EPI), has reported for years that vaccination efforts have been thwarted in Taliban strongholds, even as cases of crippling polio among children rise.

Polio is re-emerging across Pakistan, which has one of the highest rates of polio in the world. It is one of only four countries on earth where polio is endemic. The others are Afghanistan, India and Nigeria. “The situation is worrisome, very, very worrisome,” said Dr. Khan. “The biggest danger is that even previously polio-free cities are becoming infective, leading to an uncontrollable situation.”

The World Health Organization’s Global Polio Eradication Initiative has similar concerns, according to spokesperson, Oliver Rosenbauero. The “recent spread of polio into previously polio-free Islamabad and Punjab is alarming,” he said. WHO recorded 32 cases of polio in Pakistan in 2006, up from 28 in 2005. Between January and September 5th of this year, 43 cases had already been recorded. As of November, the WHO says 103 cases have been reported in Pakistan and 31 cases in Afghanistan. The most serious situations are in tribal areas of the NWFP, along the border with Afghanistan, under Islamic fundamentalist Taliban rule.

Although some religious leaders support the government vaccination campaign, EPI health workers admit that in tribal areas such as Swat, Bajaur and Kurram, the militant Muslim clerics have strangled efforts. In 2006, two vaccination workers were shot and killed on their way back from negotiations with a local council trying to gain cooperation for childhood vaccinations. In June of this year, four volunteers were kidnapped, said Dr. Kahn. “In areas under the militant Taliban, our volunteers sometimes encounter severe beatings,” he said.

Efforts to elicit the cooperation of tribal communities have had mixed results, with EPI officials saying some tribal leaders have denied vaccination workers to immunize children in regions they control until the government agrees to road or sewer projects, or continued violence against workers even during peace agreements. Shortly after accords were again reached between the government and militants in July, militants began a new and even more aggressive campaign directed against polio vaccination workers, IRIN reported.

On September 21, 2007, Radio Free Europe, followed by Islam online, reported that as part of a UNICEF program after a recent outbreak of polio, a deal had finally been reached with Taliban leaders to allow child immunizations. “I hope these vaccination campaigns will continue to be used as a bridge towards peace,” said Arshad Quddus, a medical officer with the World Health Organization.

But on September 16, 2008, the WHO reported it was forced to cancel an immunization drive after Taliban Muslim jihadists killed two doctors who were providing immunizations to children. The program had been due to finally start on September 21, 2008 and was intended to reach 1.2 million Afghan children under age five.

The WHO and other humanitarian groups, driven by courageous workers, have been able to reach many children. The Rotary Club of Pschawar in Pakistan reported that it was able to reach children in a 3-day door-to-door immunization campaign to 320 homes a remote and dangerous area on the Pakistan-Afghan border in September of this year. But the most dangerous regions are still inaccessible.

Violence against those who oppose the Taliban has caused public health vaccination teams to stay out of these areas. Melisa Corkum, a UNICEF communications officer, told Reuters: “Parts of Swat and parts of FATA, we haven’t been able to go and immunize children for quite some time. So that means we have a build-up of susceptible children that haven’t been immunized.” Anyone who has tried to vaccinate in these regions run by Muslim clerics is “really putting themselves at risk in these areas,” she said. In the Swat area alone, UNICEF estimates about 160,000 children have not been able to be vaccinated, according to Muqeem Khilji, spokesperson for the EPI.

The difficulties in bringing polio immunizations to children to these war-torn areas brings a better understanding of why parents also feel little option but to comply with militants' threats. “When order, security and economy collapse, people do what they need to survive,” said retired air force Brigadier-General Don Macnamara, “and threats are an imminent part of life.” Progress in the government’s and UN efforts to vaccinate children and bring humanitarian aid and health care to regions of Afghanistan have largely been successful with the support of NATO International Security Assistance Forces, and efforts to rebuild the Afghan National Policy and National Army to strengthen the country’s security, according to Macnamara. “A total of 7 million children have now received vaccinations through our polio eradication program,” he said, although new cases in the southern region demonstrate the need for continued vaccination efforts.

Beyond threats of violence, Dr. Khan said the main hindrance in efforts to immunize children against polio have been extremist religious leaders spreading propaganda, conspiracy theories and superstitions. Beliefs in superstitions, such as the ability of polio vaccines to sterilize children or cause diseases like HIV, are behind most parents who actually refuse to vaccinate children, he said.

Radical Islamic groups have not only ordered parents to not vaccinate their children, they have led anti-vaccination propaganda. Radical Islamic clerics, such as Maulana Fazlullah, have convinced residents that U.S.-manufactured polio drops are designed to sterilize Pakistanis and reduce the Muslim population, he said. Some parents have been convinced that to vaccinate their children is tampering with the will of Allah, said another EPI official.

A spokesperson for Tehrik-e-Taliban, Fazlullah's militant organization, reported that Fazlullah’s sermons have stressed that those who are crippled or die from polio are martyrs. He claims that the polio vaccines are made from pig fat and are haram, or forbidden for Muslims.

Maulana Fazlullah, son-in-law of the leader of the banned organization, runs a radio station in the Swat region actively warning people to “beware” of polio vaccination workers and telling parents to not vaccinate their children. The 28-year old Maulana calls the polio vaccination a “conspiracy of Jews and Christians to make Muslims impotent and stunt the growth of Muslims.” If it is still difficult to conceive that any ideology or hatred against Christians, Americans and Jews could be so extreme as to intentionally be used to harm innocent children, the recent massacres of Jewish people in Pakistan have accentuated that reality.

Maulan Radio is not only against polio vaccination but also against the formal education of girls, women working outside the home, allopathic medicine, and science and technology, reported Sadia Qasim Shah.

Dr. Khan believes that Pakistan will only be made polio-free when educational efforts can defeat superstitions and misperceptions. “To bring about an end to polio in this country, we need to change the attitudes of people first and foremost,” he said. “We will win this battle only when parents all over the country believe that inoculating their children is a necessity.”

As with most health scares, anti-vaccinations myths are based on ideologies, rather than good science. And the innocent are most harmed.

Bookmark and Share