Between polio and the jihadist pox

Dr M Taqi
The religious extremists were co-opted by the security apparatus, not by the civilians. The signal to decommission them also has to come from the brass Mankind has been practising some form of vaccination since almost when it first discovered diseases and understood that those conditions could kill, disable or disfigure. Ancient populations knew, for example, that people could be immunised against smallpox by inoculating them with it. The practice of scarification where the inoculums — the material taken from the afflicted person — was applied on to small superficial incisions, was practised from the Far East to Europe. As far back as 1500 BC, the Indian physician Dhanwantari is said to have performed it. The Arab-Persian Muslim physician Muhammad bin Zakariya ar-Razi, known to the west as Rhazes, wrote the first treatise on smallpox in 920 AD and described the differences between smallpox and measles. Inoculation went to Europe from Turkey in 1701 when a physician Timoni described the process as he had observed it in Constantinople. The idea was simple: to create immunity in healthy people by producing a mild disease using a weak (attenuated) live or dead contagion and thus protect against the severe form of the disease. On June 18, 1774, the very young King Louis XVI of France was inoculated against smallpox. The American president Franklin Delano Roosevelt was not that lucky against his disease. He ended up becoming the most famous polio patient in history. But not just that, he also became a champion against the disease. FDR founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis that is called the March of Dimes Foundation today. This organisation funded the research to develop a vaccine against polio. D. Jonas Salk along with his associates was successful in developing the first polio vaccine in 1952 at the University of Pittsburgh. The vaccine’s trial, in which 1.3 million US children participated, was completed in 1955. However, what is today given as the oral polio vaccine (OPV) was developed by a US physician Dr Albert Sabin, a Polish-American who interestingly worked closely with the Soviets to test the vaccine. The 1959 Soviet OPV trial had enrolled 10 million children. Sabin’s OPV was later tested and it became the standard in the US too. The polio vaccine is not the only shining legacy of those who stood firm against the debilitating and deadly disease. What is today known as mechanical ventilation or life support by artificial breathing machine was originally developed as the Iron Lung in 1929 to help the paralytic polio patient breathe. Fast forward to Pakistan at the end of 2012 now. Nine healthcare workers, mostly women, administering OPV have been killed in cold blood. The Taliban and/or other jihadist groups have been blamed for these heinous murders. The campaign by the religious zealots against healthcare workers as well as preventive health measures is not new. These extremists allege that the polio vaccine causes male infertility and precocious puberty in females. These charges are not new either. When iodised salt was introduced a few decades ago where thyroid disease was endemic, it was blamed for similar adverse effects. Vaccines can fail or cause allergic or adverse reactions; Salk’s vaccine did and was stopped at one point. The Soviets were however not blamed by the US for the vaccine’s failure to prevent certain forms of polio or for the impurities that caused problems. But in the land of the pure it has to be a conspiracy of the ‘infidels’ to sterilise the pure in the land. The bottom line is that one cannot empower and embolden the ultra-fanatics in matters of politics, order them to conduct violence in the name of jihad and expect that somehow this would not spill over into other areas of life. It is not possible to mobilise such legions on the street to protest the US presence in Afghanistan and expect that they would not use this same muscle to protest whatever else they feel is ‘wrong’. By sharing the monopoly on violence with the jihadists outside its borders, the Pakistani state inevitably shared it within the country too. If the man on the pulpit has been propped up to think that he can commission jihad and bring down two superpowers in less than 30 years, what is to keep him from commissioning his flock to take out a few healthcare workers? Just as it is erroneous to assume that jihadists can be programmed to operate nine-to-five and take the weekends off when told to, it is foolish to assume that once authorised to use violence for political issues they would not use it to pursue their social or doctrinal agenda. After the attack on the Pakistan Air Force base and the attached airport in Peshawar, there has been talk by some quarters that the civilians did not show leadership and take the terrorism bull by the horns. I, too, have lamented the lacklustre civilian leadership many times. However, the way the Pakistani street is mobilised to protest whatever Pakistan’s security establishment wants sends a different message to the secular political parties. Pressure applied from the street, which is given full support by the Urdu media, sets the dial to the right each time politicians try to bring it to the centre. Also, when the only Pakistani ambassador who took a firm stand in favour of civilian supremacy over the military is held hostage for weeks, it does not encourage the civilians to take charge. In this matter, even the superior judiciary had seemed to play along with the security establishment. But then again the same judiciary sent an elected prime minister packing but set free sectarian terrorists. There is no chicken and egg situation here. The religious extremists were co-opted by the security apparatus, not by the civilians. The signal to decommission them also has to come from the brass. Some clerics ostensibly being used to counter the extremist narrative have a clear agenda against healthcare issues like contraception and more ominously against the vulnerable communities like the Ahmadiyah. They openly consort with the domestic sectarian terrorists who harbour and work in tandem with the transnational jihadists. Empowering such clergymen would merely replace one set of fanatics with another and the political paralysis they have and will cause is as bad as that from polio. Using fatwas to counter fatwas is not going to work and Pakistan would remain caught between polio and the jihadist pox that is of its own making.