x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

Social barriers of polio need tackling

As well as the logistical and medical challenges of combatting polio, religious and psychological barriers are proving to be the most difficult hurdles of all in some countries.

Polio was a scourge the world over until about a quarter of a century ago - the disease killed or crippled thousands of children each year. Ever since the launch of the Global Polio Eradication initiative across the world in 1988, the number of cases has fallen dramatically.

That is not a small victory. As The National reported yesterday, only 223 cases were registered last year, representing a 99.9 per cent reduction in the number of cases globally. It is a remarkable example of what commitment, determination and cooperation can achieve in solving a global crisis. On Wednesday at the Global Vaccine Summit in Abu Dhabi, Bill Gates, the Microsoft chairman, said that the goal of making the world polio-free could be achieved in five years. The remark came as Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, committed a donation of Dh440 million to support this effort.

Unfortunately, challenges still remain, particularly in the three problematic polio host spots of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria, where billions of dollars have been invested towards the initiative. As well as the logistical and medical challenges of combatting the disease, religious and psychological barriers are proving to be the most difficult hurdles of all. Among these are a persistent suspicion that the vaccinations are actually a covert drive by the West that is doing more harm than good to their children and communities.

But a solution to this predicament is not hard to find. India, for example, which faced a similar problem to convince its large Muslim population about the benefits of the vaccination took a novel approach.

The issue was solved when Muslim religious leaders were persuaded of the long-term benefits of the immunisation. "It worked wonders," Deepak Kapur, the chair of India's national PolioPlus committee with Rotary International, told this newspaper. "From the Friday call to prayer to their teachings based on ethics and religion, they helped because people there listen to them more than anyone else."

This is also proof that involvement of the communities can help to tackle this concern more easily and, perhaps, cheaply.

In this regard, Islamic countries such as the UAE can play a crucial role that could help to achieve desired results in the last frontiers of the battle.