Creating a polio-free Pakistan
Pakistan is one of a few countries where the polio virus is endemic. The country faces opposition to eradicating the virus from extremist groups that continue to attack polio workers. (photo courtesy:beenasarwar.files.wordpress.com)
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Islamabad: Aziz Memon, a leading Pakistani businessman, is on a mission to help rid the country of polio.
As national chair of Rotary International Polio Plus’s programme in Pakistan, the 70-year-old travels to far flung areas of the country to organise Jirgas (meetings with tribal elders) and religious scholars, all in an effort to increase awareness about the disease.
Rotary International has played a vital role in the eradication of polio throughout the world, especially in Pakistan’s tribal areas — including Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA), Kashmir, Sindh and Balochistan.
Rotary has allocated $100 million (Dh367 million) to Pakistan for this cause. Its global programmes are funded to the tune of more than $1.2 billion.
Tell us about your early life and education. Where were you brought up and how you did you start out in life?
I am self-motivated since my childhood days, my primary education was funded by an educationist foundation trust. I remember that, at the age of thirteen I got my first job, teaching the senior citizens for two hours in an evening class for which I used to earn one rupee a day. That’s the reason why I am very active in social welfare activities and helping the economically disadvantaged. If I failed to get an opportunity I might be somewhere in the streets rather than an industrialist.
You have become one of Karachi’s top businessman. How did you start your business?
After completing my intermediate [education] in Karachi I took up my first job at Rs125 and according to the current exchange rate [at that time] it was almost $1.2 dollars per month. God has been kind to me and since then I have not looked back, I progressed and prospered in the job and rose to a good rank and then took an early retirement and started a small business of my own, with a humble beginning of exporting 240 garments.
How long you have been with Rotary International and working with the campaign against polio and other diseases?
I have been a Rotarian for more than two decades and being the National Chair on Polio, I have been carrying out my responsibilities for the last four and half years. So I have high hopes that we should be able to overcome the hurdles make Pakistan polio-free.
Could you tell us about the work you have been doing in this campaign?
I have mobilised all the sectors, Rotarians and people from all walks of life. We have created six resource centres across the country. We have 14 permanent immunisation centres and one recent milestone for Rotary International was the construction of 12 Permanent Transitory Points (PTPs) at various borders of the country. Permanent Transitory Points are the basic requirement for polio eradication because, when Internally Displaced People (IDPs) and refugees migrate, they are a major source of spreading the Polio virus, so now they are vaccinated at these points. Besides this, we have provided the vaccine carriers with Speaking Books to raise awareness among children. We are doing quite a number of other things as well, like the cellphone project and we are encouraging our every club to have a permanent immunisation centre.
Polio immunisation is one the most dangerous activities in Pakistan, have you ever been threatened?
I have just one belief that if you are working for a good cause God is with you and I have my full faith in God. I know that I am doing something thta is good and my God is with me. He helps, protects and guards me so that we can fulfil the promise we have made with the children of this world and our country particularly. And I am sure that there will be a day in our lives when no child will be crippled because of this disease.
Who are the elements who are continuously targeting polio workers in Pakistan and has the government of Pakistan failed to protect health workers or catch the culprits?
The government knows very well who the elements targeting polio workers in Pakistan are and these elements have claimed responsibility a number of times publicly. So we need better security and we have developed another security plan for the Khyber-Pakhthunkhwa and Karachi. We need a dedicated police force for helping polio workers.
Do you think Pakistan will able to eradicate polio in 2014? How many cases have been reported in 2014 and in the previous year?
According to the latest figures, we have 19 polio cases reported so far in 2014 and in 2013 there were 93 cases reported throughout in the country. In 2012 we were close to realising our goal to make Pakistan Polio-free but then there were attacks on polio workers and the fresh cases reported from the areas that were inaccessible to immunisation workers but we are now hopeful and committed to end this disease because this is a war for the survival of our future generations. Our future generations are at stake. We have to do this, to end polio now.
What are the major challenges faced by the government why are the Taliban against the polio vaccination?
The government of Pakistan has several issues with polio workers and other immunisation setbacks. There are still various areas, which are inaccessible for polio workers like North and South Waziristan and other parts of the volatile province Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KPK). As far as the Taliban are concerned, they have wrong myths and rumours about the ingredients of the polio vaccine, which are baseless. The ingredients are now even written in Urdu and English on the bottle of the polio vaccine.
Do you think the cross-border movement of refugees from Afghanistan to Pakistan is a major sources of polio virus diffusion?
Of course, the cross border movement is a major source of polio virus import and export. That is why we have made 12 Permanent Transitory Points including two PTPs — one at the Chaman/ Spin Boldak western border (Pakistan-Afghanistan) border and the other at Peshawar/Torkhum border.
How hopeful is your organisation that Pakistan can be made polio-free?
We are one hundred per cent optimistic and we will make Pakistan polio-free. This is our commitment.
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