Pakistan launches massive polio vaccination drive

By Ashfaq Yusufzai

A community health worker vaccinates a child against polio in South Waziristan Agency July 14. [Courtesy of Ashfaq Yusufzai]

A community health worker vaccinates a child against polio in South Waziristan Agency July 14. [Courtesy of Ashfaq Yusufzai]

PESHAWAR -- Pakistani authorities this year are launching a massive polio vaccination drive and awareness campaign.

For years, the Taliban have falsely accused polio vaccinators of carrying out a Western plot. They have assassinated 80 vaccinators since June 2012.

As a result, Pakistan and Afghanistan are now the only two countries where polio remains endemic.

Now, though, with militants on the run after more than two years of non-stop nationwide military offensives, polio vaccinators are rushing into formerly dangerous areas to immunise children against the preventable disease.

Taliban put children at risk

Health workers are facing a formidable challenge in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which are vulnerable to cross-border viral transmission between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Those two jurisdictions account for the vast majority of Pakistani polio cases.

Pakistani Taliban who fled pursuing army troops after the launch of Operation Zarb-e-Azb in June 2014 brought their animus toward polio vaccinations with them to Afghanistan, endangering both countries' -- and the world's -- public health.

So far in 2016, seven KP children have tested positive for polio. Four of them became infected in Afghanistan after frequent visits to Nangarhar Province and to Khost city, where militants continue to violently oppose immunisations.

In FATA, which adjoins KP, a two-year-old from South Waziristan tested positive for polio in June after returning from Afghanistan, according to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.

"Following the successful military actions [against terrorists], the Taliban fled FATA and emerged in Afghanistan," Dr. Ayub Roz, chief of the KP polio vaccination programme, told Pakistan Forward. "They're threatening the global polio eradication drive again, from there."

"We're prepared to counter the Taliban and to protect our children," he said.

Any deterioration in Pakistan's fight against polio could have grave repercussions, given the dramatic improvement in recent decades worldwide.

"We have begun aggressive monthly vaccination campaigns to foil the militants' anti-vaccination campaign," Ayub said.

So far, this year, medics have vaccinated 5.4m children in KP below age five, he said.

"We have special immunisation campaigns to vaccinate about 90,000 Afghan children in [refugee] camps," he said.

Protecting immunisation teams

Pakistan recorded 54 polio cases in 2015, according to End Polio Pakistan, down from 306 in 2014. This year so far, it has recorded 13 cases, including seven in KP and one in FATA -- the child in South Waziristan.

Authorities attribute the great improvement to the law and order resulting from Operation Zarb-e-Azb and the counter-terrorism National Action Plan.

With these security enhancements, immunisation teams have found much greater freedom to operate after thousands of Taliban fled to Afghanistan.

Vaccination teams reached about 965,000 children in KP and FATA June 25-30, while medics carried out effective campaigns publicising the safety of the oral polio vaccine, authorities say.

The South Waziristan two-year-old's illness, though, concerns doctors.

"The emergence of a new polio case in FATA after seven months has sounded alarm bells," Dr. Ikhtiar Ali, chief of the FATA vaccination programme, told Pakistan Forward. "We have launched a massive immunisation campaign to sustain the gains achieved in polio eradication in the past two years."

"We started a rapid response campaign after the first polio case of the year [in FATA]," he said, adding that it will send 6,000 vaccinators to immunise 500,000 FATA children.

The army escorts the vaccination teams throughout FATA, he said. "Health workers are quite safe."

In past years, thousands of parents in FATA, either out of ignorance or of fear of the Taliban, routinely rejected vaccinations for their children.

In a June 11-13 vaccination drive in FATA, only 242 parents refused the vaccine, Ikhtiar said.

Imams, parents support immunisation

Residents of FATA who remember the tragic years of rampant polio want to make sure they never return.

FATA resident Maulana Hazrat Shah has volunteered to help counter the Taliban lie that Islam forbids vaccinations.

"We have been convincing parents that it is their duty to protect their children against all forms of diseases," Shah told Pakistan Forward. "The prayer leaders and religious scholars in FATA have been supporting the immunisation campaign to safeguard children."

FATA parents are denouncing the Taliban for making their children vulnerable to polio, he said.

"All the parents who were unwilling to immunise their children when the Taliban controlled FATA are desperate now to vaccinate them," he said.

Khan Nawab, a North Waziristan resident whose unvaccinated eldest son contracted polio in 2013, is furious about the militants' opposition to vaccinations.

"They want to harm children," he told Pakistan Forward. "I have decided to support polio vaccination to help protect our children."

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