TAXILA - “Nearly all families in our village of Wana have refused to vaccinate their children against polio; they believe that the vaccine has prohibited ingredients including monkey fecal matter’, reflects Gul Bibi, a mother of two from Pakistan’s turbulent region of South Waziristan.

Fleeing harsh winters and the worries of insecurity in their native region, the family of Gul Bibi shifted to Taxila tehsil of Rawalpindi five years ago. Gul Bibi’s husband Sher Rehman provides for his family by driving a taxi in their new city where his family have been offered a promise of security, education, health and earning opportunities.

“A large number of people from Khyber and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of northern Pakistan have settled down in Taxila permanently along with relatives who have deserted Wana in pursuit of a better life 550 km away from South Waziristan Agency.” adds Gul Bibi.

Mistaken beliefs about polio vaccination in South Wazirstan have made more and more children vulnerable to the disease thus compounding the woes of polio eradication partners.

“Since we came here, many families have changed their attitude to polio vaccination. My husband was convinced by Nadeem Khan, a social mobiliser who told my husband that the polio vaccine has been successfully used in all countries including Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Turkey”. Says Gul Meena Bibi.

A network of social mobilisers known as COMNet has been established to stem the tide of swirling rumours and misinformation that has been impacting on the progress towards polio eradication in Pakistan. COMNet’s key task is to reach out to community groups and influencers who can take a leadership role in polio and child health campaigns.

Nadeem Khan, a Pashtun from Peshawar, has moved with his family to Taxila in 1998. After graduating he joined COMNet and now he’s one of the 1,500 social mobilizers deployed across the 51 polio high risk districts, agencies and Frontier Regions of Pakistan.

“Since they are underserved and often mobile community, the Pashtun community is thought to be responsible for polio virus circulation in our neighbourhoods. They ask me questions like why everyone is so much worried about polio and why not other diseases”, Nadeem explains.

“I tell them that polio is a disease and prevention of children from any disease purely falls in line with Sharia and Islam”, he says. “I tell them that Islam never prohibits any human being from taking precautions for his own safety as well as his children’s”, Nadeem Khan says.

Social Mobilisers like Nadeem Khan are specially trained in tracking and converting families who refuse polio vaccination and go door to door to engage with parents, influencers and community leaders to build trust, support and a conducive environment for vaccination teams to operate in.

Rawalpindi tops the list of refusals in Punjab with 250 families opposing polio vaccine. In Taxila alone, the target of under-five children has crossed 80,000 who are being vaccinated by health teams consisting of Lady Health Workers and volunteers.

Mufti Haider Ali Haider of Haniafia Jamia Haideria is one of the many influencers in Taxila who have been engaged by COMNet to allay religious misconceptions.

“People who believe that polio vaccination causes infertility live in a fools’ paradise. Our population would not have shot up to 180 million people if there had been family planning ingredients in the vaccine”, he says.

Rawalpindi is one of the eight high risk districts declared vulnerable to polio by the World Health Organization (WHO). With more than 750,000 under-five children, the district holds critical position in the fight against the virus. It is one of the districts of Punjab which share border with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and almost all Pashtuns living there frequently travel to KP which has reported most number of polio cases in 2013 after Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

Health specialists believe that such wide scale population movement from FATA to various parts of Rawalpindi may result in polio outbreak in this part of Punjab, which could jeopardise Punjab’s polio eradication efforts seriously.

The health authorities decided to administer additional polio vaccine doses to children under five years of age in in selected districts to stop the circulation of the virus in the province. Three consecutive weekly Short Interval Additional Doze (SIAD) rounds has been planned in March; where the virus is less aggressive and of lower capacity for transmission. More than 19.7 million doses will be used during the campaign to protect some 15.7 million children from the dreadful polio disease.

“A second round is simply an opportunity to vaccinate children who were missed in the first round. Unvaccinated children pose a direct risk to other children”, says UNICEF Health and Nutrition Specialist Dr Tahir Manzoor.