Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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Politicizing polio

Polio and other potentially fatal diseases are hard enough to eradicate without those who administer vaccines having to worry about being gunned down. But that’s what happened recently to nine people, six of them women, as they were vaccinating children in Pakistan.

The workers, who make $2.50 a day or less, were shot over three days by gunmen on motorcycles. The Taliban in Pakistan, which has condemned previous vaccination campaigns, is believed to be behind the slayings.

Those who have led the campaign to stamp out polio worldwide — including the United Nations, the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Rotary International — need support to finish the job. These groups evidently need to work more closely with host countries to enhance security.

Polio once devastated millions of people across the globe. The polio vaccine was one of the greatest achievements of the 20th century. Today, the medical community is on the verge of a knockout, as 99 percent of polio is gone.

Polio remains endemic to only three countries: Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan; the latter had the most cases last year, 198. That figure compares to 350,000 polio cases worldwide in 1988. Polio could join smallpox as the only two infectious diseases that have been eradicated from Earth’s human population.

Yet Pakistani militants claim polio vaccines are part of a plot to sterilize Muslim children. They stepped up their resistance after learning that the CIA used a Pakistani doctor to run a hepatitis B vaccination campaign as a front to help agents spy on Osama bin Laden’s house in Pakistan last year.

Tim Ryan of Waterville recently returned from a mission in Nigeria, where he helped vaccinate 3,700 children on behalf of Rotary International. He said volunteers worldwide have been devastated by the violence in Pakistan, but will keep up their fight against polio.

“The problem, is it can come back,” Mr. Ryan said. That’s especially true as our globalized economy generates more travel among countries.

“If we don’t get every little last bit of it, it’ll come back,” he said. “It’s one plane ride away. He added that the militant resistance is “very politicized.”

The nine aid workers who lost their lives should be memorialized as heroes. And the worldwide campaign to eradicate polio must continue.

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