Home » ‘It’s scary work, but I’m determined. We will make Pakistan polio-free’ – The Guardian

‘It’s scary work, but I’m determined. We will make Pakistan polio-free’ – The Guardian

by Arifa Rana

As the virus returns, one frontline worker tells of her daily trials and triumphs in the fight to eradicate it for ever
Saima Hanif, 32, is one of Pakistan’s frontline health workers, part of a network of volunteers and low-paid women who are key in the country’s fight against polio. After 15 months of no reported cases, last week it was revealed that a 15-month-old boy had been paralysed by the polio virus in North Waziristan, bordering Afghanistan, where Hanif works. Here, she tells her story …
I was very happy that Pakistan reported no polio cases for more than a year, and I was hoping it would be among the countries that have eradicated polio completely. In Bangash colony, Rawalpindi, where I work, no virus was detected where it is measured – in sewage water for a year.
Everyone was celebrating it as a victory. But sadly, after 15 months of having no polio, the case of the 15-month-old boy came as a huge shock. A few days ago, another case was reported. Our work will get tougher now.
I’m a mother of two. I feel the pain of mothers whose children get affected by polio. There should be a healthy environment for children to grow in.
There are parents who refuse polio drops for their children. I tell them I am a mother myself and that I have given them to my children before coming to give them to their children. I try to make them understand the importance – that if we want our children to stay healthy and end polio, then we should give drops.
I tell them that the drops will prevent their children from being handicapped for life, and that every child has a right to a healthy life. You must not snatch their right away – we can only help your child if you cooperate.
In my area, many parents refuse. A huge chunk of them have come from Afghanistan or from the tribal areas on the border, but it is not only those people who are conservative. A lot of times, parents hide their children when I come round.
Some tell me that they never gave polio drops to their children in Afghanistan, so why should they do so here? I insist that it is for the child’s betterment and would prevent them from a lifetime’s misery.
Some people tell me it is not allowed by Islam, and some even say things like, “my child has stopped praying since you last administered polio drops”. There are a lot of myths around. I keep giving examples of my own children, and tell them if they are not praying it is not because of polio drops.
Once, I went up many flights of stairs, and the parent refused, stating that the child was crying, although the child was nearby and calm. They did not let us in. Next day, we went back. I tried to convince them once again, but failed. We had to involve tribal and religious elders to convince them. Such incidents happen a lot. It becomes frustrating but we keep struggling to make Pakistan polio free.
There is a lot more awareness now, and people are cooperating. But if cases emerge from even one place, then the virus may spread.
Our work is scary and I don’t feel safe at times. Polio workers have been killed, and the police who were guarding them.
As a female worker, this job is more risky. We have to go to other people’s homes, and a lot of times there are no women present so we have to be vigilant and alert. Sometimes, I ask my colleagues to stand outside and be alert while I go inside to give the drops.
Some people don’t allow us into their homes and scold us. They tell us to leave and talk rudely. But there are good people who give us so much respect. They ask if we want water and tell us ‘you work in such hot weather. You people should come in and have some rest.’
Despite the fear, and the small amount frontline polio workers get (the equivalent of £23 for a week-long campaign once or twice a month), we do our work. I think it is a great service to the country, but with inflation in Pakistan, we should be paid more.
This new case is a huge setback, but I’m determined. If we continue fighting, there will come a day when Pakistan will be polio-free – not only for a year, but for eternity.”
As told to Shah Meer Baloch in Rawalpindi.
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