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Pakistan Still Struggles To Eradicate Polio


OK. The world is near wiping out polio except in countries like the one we visit next. Four years ago, Pakistan had more than 300 cases of polio. And the government, the United Nations and aid groups started a campaign to eradicate the virus. It is not easy because in order to vaccinate a kid, you need to find the kid several times over many weeks and give several doses of vaccine. So now every few weeks, almost half a million people are going out and trying to vaccinate 38 million children. Things are looking good. There's only been one polio case this year, but getting down to zero is tough. Here's NPR's Diaa Hadid in Rawalpindi, Pakistan.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Shihab walks around a bus station. He's only got one name like many Pakistanis, and he looks for kids who might have missed their vaccines while traveling.


HADID: He climbs aboard a bus and finds baby Bilal.


HADID: Shihab drops vaccine into his mouth.

SHIHAB: (Foreign language spoken).

BILAL: Ahh (ph).

SHIHAB: (Foreign language spoken).

HADID: His mother, Farkhanda, says Bilal was vaccinated two weeks ago.

FARKHANDA: (Foreign language spoken).

HADID: "Whenever there is a campaign for polio drops, I have to get him vaccinated." She says kids need repeated doses to build immunity. She's absorbed the message Pakistan is preaching to parents.

SHIHAB: (Foreign language spoken).

HADID: Shihab climbs aboard another bus. There's a baby tucked into his grandmother's lap. He's about to drop vaccine into the baby's mouth when a man intervenes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).

HADID: He says leave the baby alone. He's already been vaccinated. A refusal like this is partly why total eradication of polio remains elusive. The kid who contracted the virus this year - his parents refused to vaccinate him. Some parents do so because they don't understand why this has to be done every few weeks. During this campaign, refusals shot up after reports that three children died after taking expired measles vaccine. The issue became conflated with the polio vaccine. And after that, thousands of parents refused to vaccinate.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in foreign language).

HADID: Some parents also take their cues from preachers like this on YouTube.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Foreign language spoken).

HADID: He says vaccinators are spies, alluding to the CIA which used a fake vaccination campaign to find Osama bin Laden in Pakistan nearly a decade ago. Others preach that vaccines make Muslims infertile. Senator Ayesha Raza Farooq is the government's point person on polio. She says refusal rights aren't worrying so far.

AYESHA RAZA FAROOQ: It is only if there is clusters of refusals - blocks of refusals - that worry us, and we don't see that right now.

HADID: On the outskirts of Rawalpindi, there's a slum with a high risk for polio. Sewage runs down open drains. Hawkers push carts down narrow alleys.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Foreign language spoken).

HADID: Nida and Sahar are trying to vaccinate the kids here. They ask we use their first names because vaccinators like them have been attacked by Pakistani militants in the past.


HADID: Nida holds a clipboard. She asks a mom, you've got two girls, right? Where are they?

NIDA: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Foreign language spoken).

NIDA: (Foreign language spoken).

HADID: The mom calls them out and prods them to open their mouths.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Ah-ah-ah-ah (ph).

HADID: Nida squeezes drops into both their mouths.


HADID: They chalk notes on the wall outside as they're leaving - information for the next campaign.


HADID: They repeat this up and down the alleys. Nida and Sahar say they're proud of what they do.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: We serve community. That's why we feel happy.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: We feel good, and sometimes we feel tired also...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: ...Because it's too long.

HADID: We leave them to it and go to the local health center to interview an official.

DILBAR KHAN: (Foreign language spoken).

HADID: When this happens.

SAHAR: (Foreign language spoken).

NIDA: (Crying).

HADID: That's Nida crying and Sahar explaining. She says, after we left, a man hit Nida's head with a pistol and snatched her bag. It's not clear if it's a robbery or a targeted attack against vaccinators. In some ways, it doesn't matter. The man who we were interviewing as the young women burst into the room - he's Dilbar Khan from the World Health Organization. And he's worked in this area for years.

KHAN: (Through interpreter) I'm very much concerned about my security. We have families. We have children. Of course we worry.

NIDA: (Crying).

HADID: Meanwhile, Nida's gone to lie on a gurney. Someone's bandaged her head. I ask her if she'll continue to work as a vaccinator. No, she whispers. That refusal, too, chips away at Pakistan's ambitious goal of eradicating polio. Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Rawalpindi.


INSKEEP: OK. We have some corrections to make next. Yesterday on this program, we interviewed the interim president of Michigan State University, John Engler, about the $500 million settlement for victims of Larry Nassar, the school's athletic doctor and convicted sex abuser. At one point during the conversation, we mistakenly referred to the school as the University of Michigan.


Also in our live interview, Engler stated that the University discovered what Nassar was doing in 2016. Well, according to multiple reports, Michigan State cleared Nassar of wrongdoing on a similar charge in 2014.

INSKEEP: This was a live interview. So afterward, we did follow up with John Engler and said, what did you mean about that 2016 thing? And we got this response - quote, "the investigation conducted in 2014 cleared Nassar of allegations, and no charges were filed then. So at the time, it was not believed to be sexual misconduct."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.
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