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Beloved Pakistani Cricketer Enlisted To Fight Polio

Can cricket star Shahid Afridi convince his fellow Pakistanis in the tribal areas to vaccinate their children against polio?
Can cricket star Shahid Afridi convince his fellow Pakistanis in the tribal areas to vaccinate their children against polio?
Shahid Afridi, one of Pakistani cricket lovers' favorite players, is set to join the struggle to persuade his fellow tribesmen to administer polio drops to their children.

Hailing from the Khyber tribal district and currently living in the mega-city of Karachi, Afridi's hallmark in cricket is his aggressive style, which is the key reason for his popularity among fans of the game.

The decision to bring in Afridi to support the antipolio campaign in the tribal areas came weeks after the Taliban banned polio-vaccination teams in parts of Waziristan.

The Taliban in North and South Waziristan, the two tribal districts known for their Taliban and Al-Qaeda activity, warned people against administering polio drops to their children.

The militant leaders Maulvi Nazir (South Waziristan) and Hafiz Gul Bahadar (North Waziristan), on separate occasions, said polio teams would be permitted in the areas only when the United States put an end to drone strikes.

Most tribesmen believe the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are the most lethal weapons to hit the Taliban and Al-Qaeda leadership in their safe havens in the unruly tribal region.

Health officials in Peshawar say the Taliban ban would deprive 241,000 children -- 161,000 in North Waziristan and 80,000 in South Waziristan -- of polio immunization during the current drive, set to kick off on July 17.

One case of polio has been registered both in North and South Waziristan this year, and health officials believe the virus can spread rapidly for a number of reasons. Of the 22 polio cases registered in Pakistan during the current year, 11 were reported from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

Interestingly enough, nine out of the 11 cases from FATA were recorded in Khyber Agency, the tribal district which is the birthplace of cricketer Afridi.

Fighting Disease -- And Ignorance

Afridi's energetic style, charisma, and his Pashto language with the typical Afridi accent would be a boost for parents to register their children for polio immunization, not only in the tribal region but in the rest of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.

Shahid Afridi (file photo)
Shahid Afridi (file photo)
Officials say efforts have already got under way to prepare advertisements for the UNICEF-supported program to convey the message to the people that polio drops and vaccination do not carry any harmful chemicals and are not against religious teachings.

The polio vaccination drives in the conservative parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa also suffered a heavy blow following the reportedly fake immunization campaign by Dr. Shakeel Afridi in the city of Abbottabad to locate Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

A study published in "The Lancet" medical journal has expressed concern over the increase in polio cases in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The study says polio cases in Pakistan are on the rise because of the vaccination refusals, while the conflict in Afghanistan has contributed to the increase in the spread of the polio virus.

A record number of polio cases (198) were registered in Pakistan last year. Aside from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria are the only two other countries where the polio virus still exists.

In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province and the adjacent tribal areas, the local authorities often use local religious scholars to persuade parents to administer polio drops/vaccines to their children. However, the weak writ of the government, particularly in the tribal areas, and the presence of militant groups often impede efforts to eradicate the virus.

Looking at his popularity, Afridi's appointment as a promoter of the polio-awareness drive is believed to be very helpful.

-- Daud Khattak