Polio, terror and the immunological worldview

Global Public Health
Volume 13, 2017   Issue 2

Polio, terror and the immunological worldview
Robert Peckham
Pages: 189-210
Published online: 22 Jul 2016
This paper adopts a socio-historical perspective to explore when, how and why the eradication of poliomyelitis has become politicised to the extent that health workers and security personnel are targeted in drive-by shootings. Discussions of the polio crisis in Afghanistan and Pakistan have tended to focus on Taliban suspicions of a US-led public health intervention and the denunciation of ‘modernity’ by Islamic ‘extremists’. In contrast, this paper considers a broader history of indigenous hostility and resistance to colonial immunisation on the subcontinent, suggesting how interconnected public health and political crises today have reactivated the past and created a continuity between events. The paper explores how the biomedical threat posed by polio has become intertwined with military and governmental discourses premised on the ‘preemptive strike’. Here, the paper tracks the connections between biological immunity and a postcolonial politics that posits an immunological rationale for politico-military interventions. The paper concludes by reflecting on the consequences for global public health of this entanglement of infectious disease with terror.