PESHAWAR -- Military campaigns against Taliban insurgents in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) have proved a blessing for children, who are now receiving the oral polio vaccine, health officials say.
"FATA recorded 179 cases in 2014 due to the Taliban's [terrorism against] vaccinations," said Dr. Ikhtiar Ali, deputy director of the Expanded Programme on Immunisation (EPI) in FATA.
Because of the Pakistani army's counter-militancy operations, that number dropped to 16 polio cases in 2015 and only two in 2016, he told Pakistan Forward.
"Now, we are reaching our target of vaccinating 1 million children below the age of five due to the Taliban's defeat at the hands of the army," he said, adding that vaccinators go door to door to inoculate children with the help of law enforcement personnel.
Prior to the army's launch of Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan in 2014, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) terrorised parents and vaccinators in North and South Waziristan, which left about 200,000 children unvaccinated.
"The military operation proved a blessing for children who are now getting oral polio vaccines without any hindrance," Ikhtiar said.
Parents praise improved health access
Parents who returned to Waziristan after the military operation defeated the militants there praise the army and health workers for safeguarding their children.
"I used to take my three children for vaccination to nearby Bannu District when the Taliban were in control here, but now the vaccinators regularly visit our house to immunise my sons," said Ghafoor Shah, a schoolteacher in North Waziristan Agency.
He recalled how militants used to beat up vaccinators and intimidated parents against vaccination.
The Taliban's attacks against schools and health workers were meant "to inflict losses on the children", he told Pakistan Forward.
"The Taliban's onslaught against children was obvious to everyone, but the people remained silent for fear of their lives," he said.
Mohammad Zain, 7, contracted polio in Waziristan during the Taliban's ban on vaccination.
"I condemn the Taliban militants for banning vaccination, due to which I became crippled," he told Pakistan Forward. "God almighty will punish the Taliban for exposing children to paralysis."
Zain said his sister and two brothers are fortunate because they are receiving the vaccine now that "the Taliban have left the area and vaccinators perform their duties freely".
Vaccination a religious duty
FATA residents are celebrating the return of peace after the Taliban made their lives miserable for years, said Dr. Hashmat Ali, a physician at Agency Headquarters Hospital in Wana, South Waziristan.
"Our people are peace-loving, but militancy has changed everything," he told Pakistan Forward. "[The Taliban] killed soldiers and civilians and hampered healthcare activities. The residents came to despise them."
"People think that anything banned by the Taliban is beneficial for the people," he said, adding that this attitude has led to a rise in immunisations in general.
Mufti Abdul Shakoor, head of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam FATA, assuaged some parents' fears, confirming that vaccination is safe for children and allowed in Islam.
"Polio vaccination is the only way to protect children against disabilities," he told Pakistan Forward. "I strongly condemn the people who have been misleading the parents that vaccination was not allowed in Islam."
"Parents shouldn't pay heed to propaganda against vaccination, and they should immunise their children for a bright and healthy future," he said.
Moreover, it is a religious responsibility for parents to administer vaccines to their children, Shakoor said.
KP sees success battling polio
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) also achieved success in polio eradication in 2016, during which it recorded 8 cases, compared to 17 in 2015 and 68 in 2014, according to local health officials.
"We are very close to eradicating the polio virus, and nobody will be allowed to block the smooth sailing of immunisation," KP Governor Iqbal Zafar Jhagra said in a statement December 30.
Health workers are able to reach more children with support from security forces, religious leaders and parents, he said.
"We are reaching 99.9% of the 5.4 million children we've targeted," said Dr. Imtiaz Ali Shah, technical focal person for polio immunisation in KP.
"Refusal of vaccination has dropped to only 3,000 families in the past two years, compared to 35,000 earlier," he told Pakistan Forward.
Militants in Pakistan have killed 39 polio workers and policemen guarding them since December 2013, but no such incidents occurred in 2016 because of better security provided by the police and army, he said.
"About 32,000 vaccinators take part in every monthly campaign fearlessly," he said. "The government deploys 25,000 security personnel in every campaign."
The situation has completely changed in 2016 and the province is on its way to freedom from polio, KP Emergency Operation Cell Co-ordinator Akbar Khan said.
"With improved security, successful operations against militants and enhanced awareness campaigns regarding the significance of the oral polio vaccine, the people have now realised that vaccination is required to safeguard their children," he told Pakistan Forward.