School Polio Vaccination Efforts Hit Snags in Israel, Pakistan

Polio eradication efforts have hit a snag in both Israel and Pakistan last week after the former detected signs of the virus in its sewage system and the latter reported that it is investigating an additional 14 suspected polio cases in the northern part of the country.

Pakistan is one of the countries fighting eradicate polio completely, but it has been hampered in its immunization efforts by continuing conflict in North Waziristan. Specifically, the country’s immunization campaign was stopped by the local Taliban commander Hafiz Gul Bahadur, who said that he will continue to thwart immunization efforts as long as the US continues its campaign of unmanned drone strikes in the region.

In North and South Waziristan, more than 260,000 under fives have not been immunised since June 2012. In tribal, highly conservative parts of the country health workers are regarded with intense suspicion. Popular fears are often stoked by local religious leaders who claim the vaccines are part of a western plot to sterilise Muslims.

Elsewhere in the country, monsoon floods, insecurity and a string of byelections have forced authorities to postpone a vaccination drive originally scheduled to begin on Monday.

According to the global polio eradication initiative, 181 cases had been recorded worldwide this year between January and 13 August. A total of 71 were in Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan, countries where the disease is endemic.

In Israel there is a drive to readminister polio vaccines to all children under the age of 9 after one of the three strains of the disease was detected in the country’s sewage system. The virus was first detected in late February of this year, but has now spread to a number of cities across the country.

Initially, the vaccine was made compulsory for children under 9, and more than 300,000 doses of it have already been administered. However, according to Yoel Goldman of the Times of Israel, the country’s Health Ministry decided to temporarily halt the mandatory administration of the vaccine, in part to accommodate the high holidays which close schools in the country for close to a month every fall.

Although Israeli health authorities do not have to deal with the same level of opposition as those working in Pakistan, controversy over the immunization program is not non-existent. On Sunday, Haaretz published an editorial by Natasha Dornberg who demanded that government officials answer questions about the safety of the vaccine and offer proof of the assertion that the vaccine will not cause cases of polio in children.

Opponents are not stopping at editorial pages, either, as some have taken the matter to the courts.

On Thursday, the High Court of Justice rejected a petition to stop the vaccinations. The petition claimed that, among other things, the proposed solution could be a lot more dangerous than the problem itself.

Yaakov Gurman, director of the Izun Hozer organization, which filed the petition, told The Times of Israel that the risks inherent in the few samples of the wild strain polio virus discovered in several places in Israel could be multiplied many times over once a million kids are given the oral polio vaccine (OPV) — essentially a weakened form of polio that, like most inoculations, introduces the virus and lets the body build up a resistance by developing the antibodies needed to battle a full-on invasion of polio.