At the beginning of Every Last Child a group of Pakistani policemen are suiting up with body armor, helmets and automatic rifles as they prepare for what their officer tells them is "a jihad" - a holy war. "This is a polio program," he explains. Then the heavily armed and armored men head out into the streets of Peshawar to protect a team of polio vaccinators who are going house to house, squeezing two drops of vaccine onto the tongues of each child they meet.
If this method of delivering healthcare seems shocking, then that is the intent of the filmmaker, Tom Roberts. 27 years after the World Health Organization launched a campaign to eradicate polio world-wide, annual cases of polio have dropped from 350,000 in 1988 to 359 last year, and the disease remains endemic in just three countries: Pakistan, neighboring Afghanistan and Nigeria. Tantalizingly close to success, the WHO's campaign has been disrupted by a 2012 announcement from the Taliban banning polio vaccinations - and a campaign to kill those who defy them, which has already led to the death of some 80 vaccinators and their guards in the past two and a half years. The Taliban has spread rumors that the polio vaccine is a Western plot to sterilize Muslims, and has also said the vaccinators are all American spies, following the revelation that the CIA used a doctor in Abbottabad to try to get DNA from the children in Osama bin Laden's compound.
Every Last Child does a masterful job of showing the human costs of polio, which paralyzes many of its victims for life. Roberts follows Habib Mehsud, paralyzed from the waist down, as he struggles through the streets of Karachi on a tricycle with a hand crank, and he films a tearful father holding his infant son who has just been diagnosed with polio and whose legs are already non-responsive: "I just want him to be able to stand up once in his life," the devastated father says.
The film also focuses on Dr. Elias Durry, an Ethiopian immunization expert who is in charge of polio eradication in Pakistan. Rocked by the continuing death toll of his vaccinators, Durry devises a strategy to rename the campaign, do all the vaccinations in one area in a single day so there is less time to organize attacks, and seek support from influential politicians to overcome the Taliban's intimidation campaign. And Roberts also highlights Gulnaz Shesazi, whose niece and sister-in-law were both shot by the Taliban as they vaccinated children in Karachi. In memory of them Gulnaz herself becomes a vaccinator, and returns to the same neighborhood where she points out the bullet-holes in a door where her family members were shot.
The bravery of Gulnaz and the other vaccinators like her - many of them women - and the perseverance of Dr. Durry and his staff may be finally paying off - after a resurgence of polio cases in Pakistan in 2013 and 2014, the figures for the first half of this year are significantly lower than last year. One factor that has helped in Pakistan is the involvement of the United Arab Emirates, a fellow Muslim country, in backing the polio campaign - the UAE has donated $250 million to the vaccination effort since 2011, making it appear less of a US-led campaign. "The UAE believes that collaboration leads to the best results - tonight we are celebrating the power of partnerships," UAE Consul General Abdulla Alsaboosi said after the film.
Peter Salk, the son of Jonas Salk who discovered the polio vaccine in 1952, said after the screening that with polio, "the problem today is not with medical issues, but with human issues... it's not just immunization, it is humanization." Danielle Perissi, the executive director of the film for Image Nation, had to interview 30 potential directors before she could find someone who could handle the very real dangers of filming in Pakistan. Perissi has been screening the film around the world, including at the United Nations, "because we can persuade governments that the funding is needed... it is shining a light and keeping this as part of the global conversation."
Q&A Panelists from left to right: Abdulla Alsaboosi, Consul General of the United Arab Emirates in LA; Gitanjli Arora, MD, Co-Director of the Global Health Education Programs at the UCLA Center for World Health; Danielle Perissi, Head of Documentary, Image Nation Abu Dhabi and Executive Producer of Every Last Child; Sandra de Castro Buffington, Founding Director of the Global Media Center for Social Impact; Peter L. Salk, MD, President of the Jonas Salk Legacy Foundation; Terry McCarthy, President and CEO of LAWAC