03 Apr

Polio and Global Politics

Posted By Politybooks

Polio has been an important news item over the last year. Poliomyelitis is an infectious virus transmitted by ingestion of food and water sources contaminated with faecal matter. In serious cases the effects lead to paralysis of the limbs and major disability. The World Health Organisation (WHO) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) spearhead a programme of global eradication for the disease. 

Several discourses have been evident in the reporting about the condition.

Optimistic discourse – we are nearly at the finish line for global eradication

Bill Gates, in his BBC Richard Dimbleby lecture in 2013 expressed his optimism about the potential global eradication of the infectious disease via the vaccination programme. In a similar vein on 27th March 2014, it was announced by the World Health Organisation that India has not reported any new cases of polio in the last three years and therefore is the latest country to be certified as being polio-free (Chan, 2014). In the global eradication programme this now means that 6 of the 8 regions are now certified as polio-free. Eighty percent of the world’s population now lives in certified polio-free regions.

Vaccination linked to Imperialism

This optimistic discourse has been juxtaposed with other discourses that connect the vaccine to imperialist invasions and propagate myths about the effects of the vaccine. Currently polio is endemic in Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan. The influential, militant, religious Pakistani cleric, Maulana Fazlullah, preached against polio vaccination in his sermons. He linked the vaccine to infertility and denounced the vaccination programme as a Western ploy to sterilise the Muslim population. The Tehrik-i-Taliban, a Pakistani splinter of the Taliban in Afghanistan, claimed that the vaccine was made from pig fat and hence forbidden for Muslims. Other Muslim scholars have, in many cases, effectively countered these claims (Saleem, 2011). Both of these examples highlight how politics and religion influence lay perspectives about health and prevention of ill-health (see chapter 1 Lay Perspectives and chapter 5 Social Anthropology).

Withholding information and vaccination as a weapon of war 

Another related argument alleges that the withholding of information, disruption of health care treatment and the interruption of vaccination programmes may be used as a weapon of war. Syria had eradicated polio in 1999, but it has, since the outbreak of civil war, returned in some places. Annie Sparrow (2014) writing in the New York Review of Books and Tim Whewell of the BBC World Service (2014), allege that in geographical areas opposed to the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, vaccination programmes have been supressed leading to outbreaks in these areas. Doctors have reported symptomatic polio cases but it is alleged that the Syrian Ministry of Health did not investigate these cases and denied the WHO permission to access the affected areas. Epidemiologically this makes it impossible to trace the source of the polio virus and consider treatment and control. Polio is effectively treated to reduce effects of paralysis with physical therapy. 

These discourses serve to reinforce one of the primary messages of our book, Contemporary Health Studies, that even when health is considered in narrow biomedical domains (e.g. virus transmission and vaccination programmes), these domains are always influenced by the socio-political world in which we all live.

Diane Lowcock, April 3rd 2014


Gates, W (2014), BBC: The Richard Dimbleby Lecture [Internet]:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01qfr6l#programme-broadcasts (accessed 28th March 2014) 

Chan, M (2014) WHO: Director-General celebrates polio-free India. [Internet]

http://www.who.int/dg/speeches/2014/india-polio-free/en/(accessed 28th March 2014)

Saleem, S (2011) Muslim scholars fight to dispel polio vaccination myths in Pakistan. 4 November 2011 The Guardian. 


Sparrow, A (2014) Syria’s Polio epidemic: the suppressed truth. The New York Review of Books 61 (3) 

Whewell, T (2014) BBC World Service radio – Assignment: Syria: The Silent Enemy. [Internet]

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01vvtwc (accessed 27th March 2014)