Pakistan to fight Polio with 'Burka Avenger'

Pakistan was the only country in the world to see a rise in the number of Polio cases in 2014.

By REUTERS
October 26, 2014 09:47
3 minute read.

The Burka Avenger

The Burka Avenger

 
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In an attempt to alert Pakistan's public about Polio, the country has unveiled its first female superhero to join the nation's fight against polio, where over 200 cases have been reported by the World Health Organization.

The "Burka Avenger" features Jiya, a teacher at an all-girls' school in a small town, whose alter ego is a burka-wearing super heroine, who uses a mystic martial art that involves fighting crime with the help of books and pens.

Pakistan is in the spotlight as the only country with endemic polio that saw cases rise last year. Its caseload rose to 93 from 58 in 2012, accounting for more than a fifth of the 417 cases globally in 2013.

The World Health Organization (WHO) placed the reported number of cases of polio at 210 as of the week of October 22nd, the first time in 14 years that the figure has risen above 200.

Polio passes easily from person to person and can spread rapidly among children, especially in the kind of unsanitary conditions endured by displaced people in war-torn regions, refugee camps and areas where health care is limited.

In June, about 50,000 Pakistanis crossed into eastern Afghanistan to escape air strikes and 435,000 fled within their homeland, which could fuel the spread of polio as many are not vaccinated, UN agencies have said.

The local governing shura, or religious leadership in North Waziristan, has banned polio vaccination for the past two years, demanding a halt to US drone strikes, according to the WHO. The ban on vaccinations in North Waziristan has led to a "huge outbreak of polio", the WHO has said.

The virus has recently spread to Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel and Syria, and has been found in sewage in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and greater Cairo, WHO assistant director general Bruce Aylward has said. It also appeared in China two years ago.

There is no cure for the disease but it can be prevented by immunization.


In Pakistan however, gunmen frequently attack polio vaccination workers. Militants accuse them of being Western spies or part of a plot to sterilize Muslims.

Creator Aaron Haroon Rashid (AKA Haroon) said each episode focuses on a social issue or message. "We always have a social issue or a social message that is the centerpiece of each show. And of course, with the rising number of polio cases- the WHO has declared a medical emergency; there have been 200 cases now. Its alarming, the situation is alarming. So in this particular case we decided to tackle the polio issue head on," he said.

Haroon wanted to ensure the message of the importance of vaccination got across clearly.

"Of course, as we know, in Pakistan, polio health workers have faced a terrible time; they've been - scores of them - have been killed or kidnapped or threatened. So they are very brave. They are out there on the front line, and they are being very brave. And we wanted to have that reflected in our TV show as well," Haroon said.

"The bad guys in this TV show they steal the polio vaccinations, and then of course 'Burka Avenger' has to come to the rescue. And its done in a very exciting manner, full of action, adventure and comedy. Yet the whole situation is dealt with very delicately, and the message is very clear. The importance of the polio drops and polio vaccination is very clear and its reiterated several times in the episode," he added.

Spectators at a special screening of Burka Avenger's polio episode in Islamabad were impressed with the effort.

"I think they brought a very serious subject to everyone's attention, especially kids. And they brought it to their attention in a very fun way," said Arkum Aslam, a military officer who watched the show.

The WHO says 10 million people are walking today thanks to efforts to wipe out the disease, which mainly affects children under five years old. It says economic models show eradicating polio would save at least $40-50 billion over the next 20 years.

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