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In Pakistan, the 'United Against Polio' football tournament fights the scourge of polio

By Hameed Kashan

KARACHI, Pakistan, 29 March 2012 – Amid cheers, the Frontier Mujahid team takes their victory lap. The football team has just defeated National Frontier 2-1 in the final, beating 15 other teams to win the trophy.

VIDEO: UNICEF correspondent Anja Baron reports on the first-ever 'United Against Polio' football tournament in Karachi, Pakistan, which is raising awareness about the importance of polio vaccination.  Watch in RealPlayer


The players are exhausted, but triumphant: Not only did they win the three-day tournament; they also helped spearhead an innovative new strategy in the global fight to eradicate polio.

Obstacles to vaccination

Bhavani Chali is a dusty neighbourhood in the sprawling megacity of Karachi, Sindh Province. It is also one of the few areas in the world where children are still at risk of contracting polio.

The disease, and the debilitating paralysis it causes, can be prevented with the oral polio vaccine, which lies at the heart of the global campaign to eliminate polio. UNICEF is a major partner in this effort. In Pakistan, UNICEF works with the government and the World Health Organisation (WHO), with the support of Rotary International, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, USAID and Japan International Cooperation Agency, to provide vaccines, engage with the media, and support door-to-door visits promoting immunization.

Nevertheless, Pakistan is one of three countries in the world where, despite 20 years of sustained efforts, polio remains endemic. In 2011, 198 cases were reported, including 33 in Sindh Province. Many of these cases occurred in the Pashtun community, which faces a variety of obstacles to immunization, including poor awareness – and suspicion of – the polio vaccine.

© UNICEF Pakistan/2011/Zaidi
Local football teams play in the 'United Against Polio' football tournament in Karachi, Pakistan.

Nasir Nasrullah is the Union Council Officer for Bhavani Chali at COMnet, a UNICEF-funded project to increase awareness of polio immunization.  “They feel that polio immunization is an American conspiracy, and this is not right. So the refusal is high here,” Mr. Nasrullah said. These misconceptions arose from rumours, some spread by clerics, that the vaccine would cause impotence and AIDS, which would “eat us away from within,” he said. As a result, the last time polio immunization took place in Bhavani Chali, 79 families refused the vaccine.

A national emergency action plan, developed in 2011, called for local solutions to address the needs in high-risk areas. In Bhavani Chali, Mr. Nasrullah and his colleagues saw that the traditional means of raising awareness in schools, mosques and among families was insufficient.

They decided to try something different: combining entertainment with immunization messages. “To increase awareness, we have organized this polio tournament so that children get vaccinated. We will be able to advertise, and send the message that there is nothing to worry about in polio immunization,” Mr. Nasrullah said.

Raising awareness through sports

Working with the Karachi United Football Foundation, and with UNICEF support, the city has just held its first ‘United Against Polio’ football tournament. Amid Karachi’s simmering ethnic tensions, football, also know as ‘the beautiful game’, is the one activity that brings everyone together.

© UNICEF Pakistan/2011/Zaidi
A man administers the oral polio vaccine to a boy during the 'United Against Polio' football tournament in Karachi, Pakistan.

“Here, people are crazy about football,” said Mohammad Yusuf, a member of the Frontier City Football Club. “Football is the best way to attract and create awareness among people.”

The 16 teams comprise local residents, including students, labourers, policemen, street vendors and even a few professional players. Each player signed a pledge committing to ensure that every child in their household is vaccinated.

Nearly 8,000 people attended the tournament, with local families serving tea to competitors and traders setting up an impromptu street market. Before the start of each day, an organizer delivered a short talk about vaccination in both Pashto and Urdu.

Neighbourhood polio campaigns

Before the tournament, organizers spoke with local religious leaders to alleviate their concerns about the vaccine. Many then brought their children to be immunized and encouraged their congregations to do so as well. “There is a lot of buzz and excitement, and even in the area everybody is talking about the polio tournament,” said Mr. Yusuf. “In every house here they are now asking and learning.”

Immediately after its conclusion, an immunization campaign was held, with football players accompanying vaccinators. Through these means, Mr. Nasrullah and his colleagues hope to immunize all children in high-risk areas.

Key to this approach is bringing communities together through enjoyable group activities rather than didactic lectures, involving even the most reluctant and uninterested residents in the task of eradicating polio from Pakistan – and the world.



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