Polio finds allies in ignorance, terror

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The effort to eradicate polio worldwide is close to being achieved. Only a few cases remain of the disease, which strikes mostly children and causes paralysis and sometimes death, in Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan. But this horrible affliction, perhaps as old as civilization itself, has a new ally – the Taliban.


The recent murder by the Taliban of nine polio vaccination workers during a 48-hour period in and around Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, have shut down the eradication campaign in that area. The victims were among the 80,000 field workers attempting to vaccinate 33 million children.


The Taliban warlord in Waziristan, in Pakistan’s remote border region with Afghanistan, has banned the vaccinations until American drone strikes stop.


The Taliban, other anti-American groups and radical Muslims have also been promoting rumors that the vaccinations are a plot by the West to sterilize the Muslim world or infect it with AIDS.


In the past dozen years, through the combined efforts of governments around the world and private organizations like Rotary International and the Gates Foundation, we have come agonizingly close to putting polio away for good, just as smallpox was. What has prevented it is ignorance and terror.


Since 1985, when the World Health Organization resolved to eradicate polio, Rotarians around the globe have raised more than $1 billion for their PolioPlus campaign. The money has covered costs for vaccines, social mobilization, delivery and training of health care workers, like the ones murdered by the Taliban. But beyond that, Rotary has provided armies of volunteers to administer vaccines, which can make kids immune to the crippling disease for as little as 60 cents.


Local Rotary clubs are continuously raising money for PolioPlus. Washington Rotary Club’s annual trivia contest, for example, has raised ten of thousands of dollars for the effort over the past decade.


To use the lives of susceptible children as a tool of war is insidious, as is spreading rumors of nefarious intent among populations that are uneducated, mainly due to the edicts of fundamentalist terrorists.


Our troops will leave Afghanistan, and when they do, the Taliban may be in position to regain power. That we as Americans – government and non-governmental groups – have built schools and encouraged education there, particularly for girls, whose learning the Taliban had outlawed, is much to our credit. Knowledge is the best weapon against stupidity.


When we are no longer militarily engaged, let’s hope that we still are at work for the Afghan people, providing them with the material to build and maintain schools. Creating the opportunity to learn and think for themselves is what Afghans need to resist the terror of ignorance.


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