White Rhino – a guest post from Writers Without Borders

This post is from Omar Khan and Tim Brookes of Writers Without Borders:

The following reflects Tim and my experiences while working with the
World Health Organization in northwest
Pakistan. Tim, a science writer and NPR
commentator, was there to write about one of the most massive global health
undertakings: the eradication of polio. I was there as a physician and global
health guy; I clearly knew less about Tim’s field than he knew about

Tim and I had played cricket with the same team for nearly a decade, and
had worked together previously on telling the story of SARS, from the index
case to the
Toronto quarantine.  Shortly
after the polio assignment, we formed Writers Without Borders (www.writerswithoutborders.org). 
WWB was our response to the realization that scientists of the developing world
need to tell their compelling science and health stories. It also reflected a
growing realization, which applies the world over, that scientists must learn
how to write, not just for their own narrow professional interests but also to
convey their work in compelling ways to the general public. In that sense, WWB
mirrors the same set of beliefs that propel the OpenAccess movement:
information is made more valuable if it is accessible to the maximum number of
people. Just as Open Access reduces barriers to the dissemination of scientific
knowledge, WWB is an attempt to break down the barriers which separate
developing country scientists from achieving recognition – both within their
own settings and beyond.

WWB  embraces open access principles but aims to expand
accessibility to the general public
by encouraging and teaching
effective science writing
Tim’s piece is an example of this, conveying in narrative format a snapshot of a public health
initiative involving more than 50 years of polio vaccine research; advanced
disease epidemiology; microbiological complexity; and the challenges of
international development, with a helping of geopolitics.

Omar Khan, MD

White Rhino

When my
colleague Dr Omar Khan and I arrived in
Peshawar to observe and write about the
polio eradication campaign in
Pakistan, we were met at the airport by a
white rhino.

Or so it
seemed. Less fancifully, it was a huge white Toyota Land Cruiser with an
enormous antenna, looking like a horn, mounted on the front bumper. It was the
standard vehicle for international agencies working in the developing world,
and no single initiative has ever led to more international agencies working in
the developing world than the polio eradication campaign, arguably the most
extensive effort ever undertaken in the public good. This particular vehicle
was part of the effort to find and vaccinate every single child under the age
of five in Pakistan every eight weeks, an undeniably epic endeavor; but from
that moment at Peshawar airport I couldn’t stop thinking of it as the white
rhino, and the more time we spent in and around it, the more it seemed to
symbolize a great deal about the relationship between the donor countries and
those in need of their help.

For one
thing, it stood out like—well, like me, a 6’3" white guy of British
origins, now resident in the U.S. who, by the way, spoke no Urdu or Pashto and,
for all my good intentions, blundered around the back streets of Karachi and
Peshawar and Abbotabad relying on the kindness and patience of strangers.

The white
rhino was no more suited to its surroundings than I was. Its natural habitat
was the broadest and most Westernized of streets; in order to get us to the
heart of Zargarabad, one of the oldest districts of Peshawar, our driver had to
approach by a circuitous route, a narrowing spiral, brushing stalls and carts
on both sides until he finally halted, taking up most of a small piazza, and
waited while we accompanied the vaccination teams down the intimate, bustling
streets and alleys of the quarter.

Needless to
say, not everyone saw this intrusion as welcome. The white rhino came with the
standard UN insignia on the hood, but since the invasion of
Afghanistan, "UN" had become more or
less equated with "US," and the rhino, we were told, had started
attracting stares, jeers and even stones. The polio team had then tried
painting WHO on the front doors, but that had done little good. It was only when
the familiar No Polio sign had been added to the rear doors, along with a
sticker—recognizable from the polio eradication campaign posters—of a small
boy, that the vehicle was in effect vaccinated against its other associations.

 For those of a more extreme cast of mind, of course,
the rhino was still just a big, fat, white target. One of the dangers of
operating a sizeable vehicle in decent repair with a full tank of gas in an
unstable region is that the vehicle is easily seen as either an asset or a weapon
or both. 

you work in an area that has almost no vehicles, and even the military and the
police have no vehicles, or only vehicles that are very old, and you go in with
your nice white 4×4, it is very tempting," the WHO security consultant explained.
"One problem is carjacking. Another situation that we encounter in the
field is the request, and sometimes the demand, for lifts for armed military or
armed individuals. When you are in the middle of fighting, it doesn’t matter if
you are working for WHO or UNHCR or whoever, they will requisition your vehicle
to take their guy to the hospital–or the so-called hospital. That’s the kind
of situation that can turn very, very dangerous if you don’t know how to handle

Hence the
rhino’s horn: the massive antenna is installed so the driver can pick up
shortwave signals from UN Security and transmit its
GPS coordinates so the UN knows where
it is at all times. Even so, the Land Cruisers in the
North West Frontier Province had come under fire.

have actually been three attacks," said Dr Abraham Debesay, at the time
the provincial polio team leader. "One time we were shot at, one time the
vehicle was kidnapped and not recovered for five days, and one time the vehicle
was kidnapped and we never got it back."

attacks were relatively uncommon, of course; yet there was a sense in which
even the day-to-day activities of the polio program, and by extension many of
the other projects being carried out by international aid agencies,
uncomfortably resembled the rhino and its thick-skinned momentum.

From the
safe distance of the
United States or Western Europe, such interventions seem
indisputably sensible and altruistic: if we can eradicate a disease by throwing
almost infinite amounts of money and energy at it, surely the disease will
succumb, and surely our actions are a de facto good?

On the
ground, though, this attitude seems all too much like the lumbering charge of
the rhino. On our first day in
Pakistan we met with a council of town
elders, some of whom energetically questioned the value of the polio
eradication program, or at least its priorities. One said, not unreasonably,
"Our main problems are unclean air and unclean water. Why aren’t you
helping us with those?" Another pointed out that only one or two children
a year died of polio, whereas dozens died every month from diarrheal diseases.
Why would the community want to direct, say, 80% of its energy addressing its
(at best) tenth gravest health risk—and why wasn’t the international community
doing anything to help with the nine risks above it on the list?

poignantly of all, in the tribal regions near the Afghan border, some of the
poorest and most under-served communities on Earth, some villages had decided
to hold their own children as hostages, in effect: they said they wouldn’t
allow the vaccination teams in until the government built a road, or a water
line, to the village. In the face of these urgent and complex problems, the
rhino seemed impossibly heavy-footed, hard to steer. Everyone involved in such
programs must at times feel the urge to blow on the horn, to lean out of the
window and try to wave people out of the way.

the rhino’s limitations are best exposed if and when the polio campaign (or
whichever intervention is being driven by those in the air-conditioned
interior) succeeds.

aid campaigns are essentially an aberration, financed and sustained from
outside, and much better funded than routine healthcare. If polio is ever
eradicated in
Pakistan, one health officer suggested to
us, it could be one of the worst outcomes for the country. Polio program money
is a major source of funds for routine childhood immunizations, and if the
polio funding ends and the foreigners (such as himself) leave, the level of
routine vaccination of measles, diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus and tuberculosis
will fall to nothing. The success of one vaccination campaign will be the death
of the others.

Even the white rhino, that hardworking and profoundly useful vehicle, would
cease to be an asset, too expensive for the people and too big for the streets
it needs to serve.

"Smallpox eradication left very little behind," a
senior WHO officer explained, looking back to the world’s previous major
eradication program. "It was pretty much run, in the end stages, by
internationals who worked as supervisors in developing countries, and worked to
get the job done. Those internationals had their own vehicles, their own
funding. They could move things ahead very rapidly, [but] that’s not the way to
develop a country’s capacity."

When the smallpox program pulled out, it left behind what
might be thought of as well-intentioned Western junk. The smallpox campaign’s
vehicles were just an added burden to an already extended local government
budget, and spare parts and even gasoline were a luxury that could no longer be

"In many parts of Africa
and some parts of Asia," he
went on, "there were actually graveyards of smallpox eradication

Brookes is co-founder, with Omar Khan, of Writers Without Borders (www.writerswithoutborders.org)
and the author of Behind the Mask: How the World Survived SARS, A
Warning Shot: Influenza and the 2004 Flu Vaccine Shortage
and The End of
all published by the American Public Health Association Press.


Dr. Omar Khan,
Nazeer, Dr.Mulugeta Abraham Debesay and the white rhino in
Pashawar, Pakistan.
credit: Tim Brookes

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