A note to my homeland: It's time to eradicate Polio in Pakistan.
Some of you may know that I'm British Pakistani. I was born and raised in the UK where I have lived my entire life but I hold Pakistan very, very close to my heart. The stories of my mother's childhood, climbing mango trees with mischievous cousins, my dad standing up to his college Principal in the 1980's, the turmoil of political change from democracy to dictatorship and back again; all of these things coupled with my own visits and time spent in the country have strengthened the natural fondness I felt for this far-away nation.
Perhaps because of all these things, I've spent a lot of my time thinking about what Pakistan needs in order to grow and develop as a nation, and how it can ensure the country is fit for purpose for its population of c.200 million people in the future.
Pakistan is a young country both in age and demographics. The majority of the country's population is young, under the age of 30. But it is a country that faces significant challenges, the majority of which are unfortunately state-enabled, if not directly resulted from. One of its key issues is healthcare, or rather the lack of affordable, high quality healthcare as well as accessibility to healthcare provision. Healthcare and medicine as a whole is a huge topic and with a population the size of Pakistan's, there is never going to be an immediate fix.
However, the one area that has persistently seen setbacks but is possibly also the one area that could realistically be solved in my lifetime, is the eradication of many major diseases; chief among these, is polio. Pakistan and neighbouring Afghanistan are the last two countries in the world with significant instances of polio across the population. Every other country around the world has managed to either fully eradicate the disease, or seriously limited its instances so that it is no longer statistically significant.
Pakistan's journey to eradicate polio has been the centre of attention globally both from other states but also charities and NGO's including organisations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which has focused a significant amount of resources and attention globally, to eradicating polio and you can bet that Pakistan is very much on their radar.
If you speak to people in Pakistan who have children with polio, there are a couple of things you're likely to hear. Firstly, that the presence of polio is an American conspiracy, secondly, that the injections (vaccines) don't work, or perhaps most troubling of all, that it's God's will. All of these objections can be managed with appropriate education and learning in order to teach people the reality of how vaccines work, but also how (as a Muslim majority country), it's not God's will for you to allow your children to become sick.
The conspiracy theory one is more difficult however - Pakistanis have not forgotten that American intelligence agencies used the ruse of a health clinic providing vaccinations to children during the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Unfortunately, getting the population past this is a colossal task; the distrust and skepticism caused by that sole incident has had severe repercussions and sadly, in some parts of Pakistan, the fear remains that such clinics are all fake and that parents making use of them may be inadvertently be subjecting their children to something much worse.
In other areas, and I'm thinking particularly of broader healthcare coverage, certain areas in Pakistan are making great strides, not least of all in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where the PTI led administration has made affordable healthcare a reality for many poor Pakistanis thanks to insurance coverage. Tackling polio needn't therefore be a showstopper, yet it seems that this disease, and specifically this disease, is tied up with so many negative connotations in large swathes of the country that addressing this may take longer than is advisable.
The children don't have long. Once polio sets in, it sets in. I can only hope that the government of Pakistan begins to take a far more proactive approach than it has in the past to address this. A generation of children cannot be allowed to suffer as a result of ignorance or misguided notions, however instilled they may be.