A sharp increase in the number of Polio cases in Pakistan has caused widespread concern among health authorities around the world.
85 percent of all global cases of the crippling disease this year were recorded in Pakistan with the World Health Organization blaming Islamic extremists – who believe that medical teams carrying out vaccinations are western agents sent to “sterilize” the country’s children – as well as government ineptitude.
Health authorities however, have now received support from a rather unlikely source, the ‘Burka Avenger’, Pakistan’s first animated female superhero, whose previous foes have included (animated versions) of Taliban insurgents.
The cartoon – created by Pakistani pop star Aaron Haroon Rashid – features ‘Jiya’, school teacher by day who dons a full-body Burka by night to fight extremists trying to shut down girl’s schools.
Her main foes are a corrupt politician and Baba Bandook, an evil magician with a bushy black beard meant to look like a Taliban commander and who raises the question, “What business do women have with education?”
After the Taliban, animators have turned their attention to polio, a disease that is endemic in Pakistan and mainly affects children under the age of five.
It is transmitted through contaminated food and water and infects patient’s central nervous system, causing paralysis and often, death.
Haroon Rashid said: “We always have a social issue or a social message that is the centerpiece of each show. And of course, with the rising number of polio cases…the situation is alarming.”
Taliban militants have long been the scourge of Pakistan’s polio vaccination campaign, attacking aid workers and the police who protect them as they distribute doses to children.
But experts say there is another reason for the spread of polio – government mismanagement.
“Pakistan’s polio programme is a disaster. It continues to flounder hopelessly, as its virus flourishes,” the Independent Monitoring Board, which advises agencies fighting polio, will say in a report to be released this week.
The prime minister’s polio cell was disbanded during 2013 elections, the new government delayed reconstituting it, and in recent months the prime minister has been consumed with protests in the capital that have only just ended.
“It’s frustrating. Eradicating polio is not rocket science,” said Elias Durry, head of the World Health Organization (WHO) polio campaign in Pakistan.
“If we could have three to five months to have really good campaigns, then we could get rid of this disease,” he said. “We have been doing half-baked campaigns in high risk areas.”
Polio was meant be a thing of the past.
A global campaign came tantalisingly close to wiping out the disease altogether.
So far this year, Pakistan has had 217 polio cases, a 14-year high. The disease spreads easily from person to person, and Pakistan has already exported the virus to Syria, China, Israel and Egypt.
Experts say complacency is not an option and the government has called the situation an “emergency”.
Yet as the latest vaccination campaign kicked off this week in the broiling, garbage-strewn alleys of Pakistan’s biggest city, Karachi, vaccination workers said they had not received stipends from the provincial government for months.
Some have dropped out of the campaign in Karachi, a teeming city of 18 million people where the disease is entrenched.
As teams prepared to venture out on vaccination missions into some of Karachi’s most dangerous streets, police deployed to protect them showed up late.
Vaccinators must wait, meaning they miss children. Sometimes only a third of children in an area are vaccinated, the WHO said, and low coverage fuels new outbreaks.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took six months to appoint an official responsible for polio, and the government approved a funding plan only last month.
That meant provinces did not pay workers their stipends of $2.50 a day on time, said Shahnaz Wazir Ali, a polio adviser to Sindh province in the south where Karachi is located.
“We had a loss of about nine to 10 months, which is a very big setback,” Ali said.
Ayesha Farooq, the prime minister’s appointee on polio, admitted there were problems, but said that payment arrears were down to provincial, not central government.
For frontline polio workers, late pay is less worrying than lack of protection. Sixty-four people have been killed in attacks on polio teams and their security escorts since 2012, when the Taliban banned vaccinations in areas they controlled.
Their targets are women like 19-year-old medical student Asma Nizam, who received a death threat for taking part in the programme.
“A man came on a motorbike and said, ‘if you want to save your life, you should go from here’,” she said.
The next day, militants killed five of her colleagues.
As she prepared to visit Karachi slums on a vaccination mission last Monday, police sent to protect Nizam were three hours late.
Pakistan’s police are thinly spread, especially in crime-ridden Karachi where only 26,000 police watch over the huge city. Some are seconded as bodyguards for politicians.
“I have seen six police taking a VIP’s teenager to the salon but they cannot spare any officers to protect the poor children of Pakistan,” one health official burst out in exasperation.
A further hurdle is caution among families offered the treatment.
Some believe the Taliban propaganda about a Western sterilization plot.
Aiding polio’s spread has been this year’s military offensive in the tribal region of North Waziristan, which drove nearly a million people out of the conflict zone.
The mass movement allowed workers to vaccinate children previously unreachable. But families also moved to areas where vaccination coverage was patchy, allowing polio to reestablish itself in cities where it had been eradicated, experts say.
Children may need the oral vaccine up to 10 times for it to be effective. Many Pakistani children are malnourished or have diarrhoea so the vaccine is not absorbed.