From the ninth to the 12th centuries, Muslims were among the leading practitioners of what was then considered advanced medicine. Islamic doctors borrowed freely from Byzantine, Greek and Roman medicine, unlike their counterparts in insular, ignorant Europe. Their scholars saved many valuable texts from being consumed by the ignorance of the Dark Ages. That is why what is happening in Pakistan – and to a lesser extent northern Nigeria and Afghanistan – is so dismaying.
These are the only three countries where polio is endemic. Children are particularly susceptible to the crippling, occasionally fatal, disease.
Out of a combination of malice and ignorance, Taliban warlords in northwest Pakistan are trying to halt polio vaccination programs. In areas controlled by the Taliban and al-Qaida, militants have banned government vaccinators, ostensibly to protest against U.S. drone strikes. (Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face.) Several vaccinators and their police escorts have been gunned down to press home the point.
In Afghanistan and northern Nigeria, Islamic militants are also trying to end Western-funded vaccination programs, telling gullible villagers that it is a Western plot to sterilize Muslim children.
The U.S. bears some of the blame for this misinformation for having used an immunization program in Abbottabad, Pakistan, as cover in the search for Osama bin Laden. The Pakistani doctor who cooperated with the effort was sentenced to 33 years in prison, but a judicial commissioner overturned the conviction and ordered a new trial.
Polio is a disease that, like smallpox, could be successfully eradicated. Health officials have come achingly close in Pakistan, despite setbacks like Abbottabad.
Health officials confirmed 198 cases of polio in Pakistan in 2011, the highest of any nation. An aggressive vaccination program brought that down to 58 in 2012. The country has had 27 confirmed cases so far this year – 17 in areas controlled by the Taliban and al-Qaida. The number is undoubtedly higher, because health officials have been effectively banned from many areas.
The solution to this resistance to polio vaccinations is education, but the only education permitted by the Islamic militants is rote memorization of the Qu’ran. The suspicion here is that the bar against vaccinations will last only until a beloved child of a senior Taliban or al-Qaida figure contracts polio.