Solar panels defy militant efforts to sabotage vaccination in FATA

Ashfaq Yusufzai

Technicians install solar panels in Wana, South Waziristan, April 28. [Courtesy of Ashfaq Yusufzai]

Technicians install solar panels in Wana, South Waziristan, April 28. [Courtesy of Ashfaq Yusufzai]

PESHAWAR -- Health authorities in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) have installed solar panels in health centres to provide continuous power and to maintain the vaccine cold chain, ensuring children receive effective immunisations.

The effort began in January and has reached 200 vaccination centres in FATA, according to Dr. Ikhtiar Ali, director of the FATA chapter of the Expanded Programme on Immunisation (EPI).

The continuous supply of power allows vaccinators to reach more children even as the Taliban continue their campaign against immunisation.

Hospitals in FATA in past years had to contend with terrorist sabotage of power lines and other infrastructure.

Polio remains endemic in only three countries: Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan.

"Vaccination has suffered immensely due to the Taliban's opposition in FATA," Ikhtiar told Pakistan Forward.

"For the past two years, we have been trying to boost up immunisation and safeguard children from nine vaccine-preventable ailments," he said.

FATA has a 30% vaccination rate, much lower than the nationwide 70% average, because militants in FATA terrorise and threaten vaccinators and parents alike, he said.

Taliban destroy hospital infrastructure

The Taliban in June 2012 proclaimed its opposition to immunisation in North and South Waziristan and other parts of FATA. The ensuing intimidation and terrorism wrecked vaccination programmes in those areas, exposing children to preventable ailments and causing several outbreaks.

Militants not only falsely linked vaccination to a supposed Western plot against Muslims, they also blew up the electricity infrastructure in many health facilities, making it difficult to maintain the cold chain for vaccination.

The installation of solar panels in 200 vaccination centres in FATA since January gives refrigators "continuous power" and has ensured the efficacy of vaccines that require storage under a certain temperature, Ikhtiar said.

Before the solar panels were installed, preserving vaccines was a major challenge, Mushtaq Ali, an EPI technician in a hospital in Mohmand Agency, said.

"We used to discard expensive vaccines when they spoilt because of ill effects on children's health," he said. "Now, the problem of the cold chain has been resolved permanently."

Amin Jan Gandapur, president of the Pakistan Pediatrics Association, praised the government for stepping up its efforts to fix the low vaccination rate in FATA.

"FATA has witnessed outbreaks of diphtheria, whooping cough and measles in the past few years due to non-vaccination of children," he told Pakistan Forward. "The installation of solar panels is a right step to ensure that children get quality vaccination and stay safe from diseases in the future."

Immunising all children

With the aim of vaccinating a million children, the EPI is hiring 350 more vaccinators to join the 506 already working in the seven tribal agencies, FATA Health Director Dr. Jawad Habib Khan told Pakistan Forward.

"We are banking on the support of security agencies [to aid in the] vaccination of children in areas that recorded the lowest rates during the Taliban's presence," he said.

"Since the expulsion of the Taliban in a military operation, we are on our way to improving immunisation," he said, referring to Operation Zarb-e-Azb, which the army launched in North Waziristan in June 2014. "Installing solar panels and establishing more EPI centres are part of the plan to counter power outages and to save the vaccines from spoiling and immunise all children."

Thirty-eight EPI vaccination centres in FATA are still waiting for the solar panels that will guarantee uninterrupted power to their refrigerators, he said.

The solar power system has played a key role in making EPI centres effective, Rahim Shah, a physician at the Agency Headquarters Hospital in Wana, South Waziristan Agency, told Pakistan Forward.

"The Taliban beat up vaccinators and closed down EPI centres when they illegally ruled the area three years ago," he said.

Zarb-e-Azb "has proved a blessing for children because the defeat of the Taliban has provided security, enabling vaccinations to proceed smoothly", he said.

All 46 EPI vaccination centres in Mohmand Agency are functioning because of improvement in law and order, he said.

The military's crackdown on militancy has enabled children in FATA to receive routine vaccinations as children everywhere else in Pakistan do, Dr. Rana Safdar, head of Pakistan's vaccination programme, said.

"We have been covering 99% of the target population for polio [vaccines] after the Taliban's eviction from FATA," he told Pakistan Forward. "We had only two polio cases in 2016 compared to 16 and 179 in 2015 and 2014, respectively."

Rectifying Taliban's harm to children

The Taliban inflicted great harm on children when they blocked them from going to school and from receiving vaccines, Peshawar-based medical scholar Ihtashamul Haq said.

The country has a great opportunity to scale up awareness about the significance of immunisation among the tribal population, he said.

"Solar power is a big step in giving good vaccines to children," he told Pakistan Forward. "This should be extended to cover all hospitals, especially in areas where electricity wasn't readily available."

Ihsanullah Shah, a resident of Bajaur Agency, said he recently took his three children to an EPI centre for regular vaccinations.

"During the Taliban era, one of my children got measles because of non-vaccination, but now the situation is good and the children are being immunised," he told Pakistan Forward.

Shah denounced the Taliban's campaign against vaccination and vowed to protect his children from diseases.

The government should install solar power in all hospitals, he said.

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