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Will the Taliban Succeed with Polio Warfare?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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bar chart of drone casualty statistics 2004-2012

Pakistan drone statistics. Source: Bureau of Investigative Journalism

At first glance, the news that the Taliban have reportedly decided to ban polio vaccinations for 160,000 children in tribal regions of Pakistan as a way of protesting ongoing drone attacks by the U.S. might seem foolishly counter-productive. As Ed Yong put it in on Twitter, “Taliban to US: “If you don’t stop killing our kids w/ drones, we’ll kill them with polio.” World to Taliban: “Erm…”

But a quick look at the numbers shows that the Taliban are NOT actually shooting themselves in the foot, so to speak. They are, in fact, attempting to hold the world hostage.

The threat is not to Pakistani children but to the children of the rest of the world–who might develop paralytic polio if the infection is not contained in the three countries where it continues to be endemic–Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria.

Let me explain. According to the World Health Organization, there were 49 cases of clinically relevant polio in Pakistan in 2011. Most of them presumably survived since the mortality rate for pediatric polio ranges from 2 percent to 5 percent (pdf). Going strictly by the numbers, under the 5 percent worst case scenario, you’d expect 3 of the 49 children who developed paralytic polio to die of the disease.

Now for the other half of the equation. According to the London-based Bureau of Investigative Reporting, at least 75 civilians died in US drone attacks in Pakistan in 2011–six of them children.

So, in a cold-hearted balancing of an equation measured in children’s deaths, the Taliban bargain of polio vaccines for drone attacks actually works in their favor: six children potentially not killed by drones minus three children killed by polio puts them ahead three children.

Of course, anyone who knows anything about polio understands that the Taliban’s true threat is that its actions in denying vaccination could help spread polio to other countries. Indeed, as an article by Helen Branswell pointed out in May, China last year reported its first cases of polio in more than a decade. The viral strains that caused the illness were traced via genetic testing back to Pakistan.

About the Author: Christine Gorman is the editor in charge of health and medicine features for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. Follow on Twitter @cgorman.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. bsebadger 4:55 pm 06/19/2012

    While I believe that the implications for kids (both Afghan and elsewhere) will be enormous due to this action by the Taliban, I have to admit that the ‘math’ used in this blog is rather silly and unnecessary. It stoops the otherwise extremely important message to a scoff-worthy low. Even the conclusion is asinine and meaningless:

    ‘So, in a cold-hearted balancing of an equation measured in children’s deaths, the Taliban bargain of polio vaccines for drone attacks actually works in their favor: six children potentially not killed by drones minus three children killed by polio puts them ahead three children.’

    Are you assuming that the number of children infected by polio will stay the same despite the ban, as it was in the absence of the ban? Why would that number not increase as more of the children are not able to get the vaccine, and become infected with the virus? That 5% death rate probably applies even if the infected population becomes larger. Please say if that is not the case.

    Why would you ruin an important piece of news with some meaningless algebra to drive home an insane argument and a preposterous conclusion? What is to say that your audience will not go home with the message that ‘the Taliban’s ban on the vaccine will somehow ‘save’ Pakistani children by doing away with drone attacks, which are much more deadlier’?

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  2. 2. B.Free 4:57 pm 06/19/2012

    They need to understand that the US will not permit them to continue to attack the Afghans. The Taliban can try to hold us hostage but, we can isolate Pakistan and force them to work more effectively to remove the Taliban and we can continue to strike them wherever they hide and give them no ground. The US is not afraid of Polio. And the Taliban do not want to anger the Chinese. They are not as understanding as the US.

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  3. 3. vapur 9:19 pm 06/19/2012

    I think the author of this article was trying to make the connection between biological warfare and weapons of mass destruction, and that the Taliban was engaging in it to an extent that warrants international intervention. I question whether the author truly knows if the Taliban’s intent was to cultivate Polio to infect the rest of the world, or whether there were sufficient fears as to what was contained in the vaccine. How do you know if your enemies aren’t really trying to poison you? Make them take your word for it at the end of a barrel?

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  4. 4. vapur 9:21 pm 06/19/2012

    You really think mid-eastern style hillbillies are that conniving? You give them too much credit.

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  5. 5. plswinford 4:11 pm 06/20/2012

    Pakistan is 96% Muslim. They are not, and will not, ever be on our side.

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  6. 6. gmperkins 2:47 am 06/21/2012

    This article didn’t make much sense. First, how is this a global threat? I don’t see how this spreads since they are fairly well isolated and anyone who visits is certainly going to have a polio vaccination. Basically, need more info to support this and I never read that the Taliban said this was the reason they were doing this. Second, paralytic polio is a lifelong illness, so even if you don’t die you have to live with its crippling effects. Granted drones also cause injuries that don’t always lead to death but it just doesn’t seem possible to mathematically equate a drone or missile or gunfire with a disease.

    And hell, people in the US are refusing vaccinations. Are they out to infect the world or just being really foolish because they don’t understand? The Taliban is living in the dark ages, their reasoning is not easy to discern because their goals and motivations are just …. I have no nice words for it so I’ll just say ‘very different than what most people from industrialized nations would expect’.

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  7. 7. MolBioPhys 3:51 am 06/21/2012

    To “plswinford”

    It is your very way of thinking “THEY are Muslim and (I’m assuming here as you did) WE are Christian” that is keeping us (Christians?) and them (Muslims) on separate sides.

    Do you know how many anti-Taliban American Muslims there are in this country? And how about how many Buddhists, Hindus, and the myriad Native Americans all with vastly different belief systems here in the United States and abroad who are all on the same side of peace and eradication of disease?

    What a recursively ignorant thing say, “They are %96 Muslim…” and so therefore, “they are not on our side”!

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