April 16, 2009: 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. But in the recent past, the Taliban have actively opposed efforts to prevent outbreaks of polio.
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.
Like small pox (which was wiped out in the 1970s), once there are no people with polio, the disease is gone for good. That's 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 urging parents not to vaccinate their children against polio, has the effect of providing the disease with hosts, and keeps it going. In 2006, 24,000 children were not vaccinated in northern Pakistan because of this paranoid fantasy. In Afghanistan, it was even worse, with 125,000 children denied vaccination by Taliban terrorists (who attack the vaccination teams) that year. It took a major information and diplomatic effort by more clear thinking Islamic clerics and politicians to turn the situation around. But the paranoid opposition to vaccinations 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's "God's will" that the kid is dead or crippled from polio. Most Moslem parents accept that, because Islam means, literally, "submission" (in this case, to a bearded guy with a gun). But popular anger at this Taliban policy forced many radical clerics to drop their opposition to polio vaccinations (administered via a drop of vaccine a child's tongue).
Islamic radicals in northern Nigeria (which is largely Moslem) have been waging a similar campaign against medical personnel trying to wipe out polio. Islamic paranoia about Western medicine has, for nearly a decade, been the major obstacle to wiping out polio.