Sometimes it is hard for us to realize what a burden polio is since it has been eradicated from the Western Hemisphere since 1991. But there are still pockets of polio around the globe and several recent flare-ups remind us our work is not done.
Donald G. McNeil, Jr. reviewed a new documentary about where polio is making its last stand:
Everyone in “Every Last Child” is fighting a holy war — the vaccinators against the virus, the Taliban against the vaccinators, the police against the Taliban. Above them, outside the frame, is a dark tornado of greater forces: radical Islam versus those it considers Crusaders, the Central Intelligence Agency’s actions versus those of the World Health Organization, Western science versus Eastern faith. Every time it touches down in the slums of Karachi and Peshawar, it leaves behind new victims: dead vaccinators and paralyzed children.
If polio has disappeared from Africa — and on Aug. 11, it will be a full year since a case has been found on that continent — then the Pakistan-Afghanistan strain will be the world’s last.
The rejection of polio vaccine by some in that part of the world shares some of the same forces of denial that we see in the West: false experts, conspiracy theories, and wishful thinking:
Why would anyone decline a gift with no strings attached — a gift that, rejected, could consign one’s own children to paralysis?
Even worse: Who would ruthlessly gun down women and girls — neighbors and clansmen, not strangers — who are the innocent bearers of that gift?
The film offers hints. In it, Zubair Rabi, a grocer, and his friends repeat the tired but still potent rumors: That the vaccine is really birth control aimed at Muslims. That the same American skunk works brewed up the virus that causes AIDS and shipped it to Africa.
The camera follows Mr. Rabi and his children to the beach. It is empathetic: He obviously loves them. No, he says, as they play fully clothed in the surf, they are not vaccinated, but they are healthy. He loves God, so God protects his bairns.
McNeil reminds us that violence against vaccinators has even happened here in the U.S.:
During a 1916 polio outbreak in Brooklyn’s Pigtown neighborhood, the Black Hand, the Mafia’s forerunner, issued a warning to the city inspectors who were forcibly hospitalizing children and sealing homes: “If you report any more of our babies to the Board of Health, we will kill you.”
McNeil, who reports for the New York Times, remains optimistic:
Polio has escaped before — to Syria, to Somalia and elsewhere — but its escapes are briefer and the number of children paralyzed fewer. The day of the last child appears to be getting closer.
How close are we to eradicating polio from the face of the earth? We’ll see.