PESHAWAR -- The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) have remained polio free for the past year, a result of on-going military operations against terrorists and improved access for health workers, officials say.
"The last polio case in FATA emerged on July 27, 2016, and the tribal region has maintained a zero-polio-case status since then," Dr. Nadeem Jan, technical focal person for the FATA Emergency Operation Centre (EOC), told Pakistan Forward.
"This is a big achievement: a region that used to be the epicentre for the spread of polio virus in Pakistan has been made polio free," he said. "Credit for this development goes to the security forces of Pakistan and health workers."
"Military operations cleared insurgents from FATA, restoring peace and paving the way for health workers and vaccinators to work in those areas that remained inaccessible to them because of the [previous] law and order situation," he said.
Before the military operations, polio vaccination teams were unable to reach all of FATA, he said, adding that now they are able to step into every nook and corner of the tribal belt.
Jan also appreciated the courage and spirit of members of the Polio Eradication Initiative in FATA, who risked their lives to protect Pakistanis from the crippling disease.
"Maintaining FATA's status as polio free will free Pakistan from the virus and supports global efforts aimed at complete eradication of this dangerous disease," he said.
Pakistan is trying mightily to end its status as one of only three countries where polio remains endemic. The others are Afghanistan and Nigeria.
Dramatic drop in polio cases
"In 2014, when Pakistan's military launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb against terrorists taking refuge in FATA, there were 179 polio cases reported from the tribal region, which was very high compared to previous years' figures," said Muhammad Riaz, a community based vaccination manager in FATA.
Soon after health workers gained access to all of FATA, the number of FATA polio cases plunged to 16 in 2015, Riaz told Pakistan Forward. In 2016, only two cases were reported.
For all of Pakistan, 306 polio cases were reported in 2014. That number dropped to 54 in 2015 and 19 in 2016, he said. So far in 2017, only two polio cases have been reported: one in Punjab and one in Gilgit-Baltistan.
"About one million children are being vaccinated against polio every month in FATA," he said.
Fewer parents are refusing to vaccinate their children after they learned about the disease's perils and the vaccine's proven safety, added Riaz.
"Administering polio drops in volatile FATA is an extremely dangerous job, and we are risking our lives in the spirit of patriotism," a vaccinator from South Waziristan who requested anonymity for security concerns told Pakistan Forward.
About 40 polio workers and police officers guarding them have been killed in Pakistan since December 2013, though the pace of killings dropped sharply in 2016, as security improvements took root.
"FATA is a hard area, and we have to go to remote areas besides trekking hills to make sure that every child has been inoculated," said the vaccinator in a phone interview.
"Sometimes people show resistance and express reservations [about the vaccine], but with the help of influential figures in the area including elders ... they allow the vaccination of their children," he said.
"For the safety and health of our children, we will continue our jobs despite all hardships and dangers," the vaccinator said.
"UNICEF (the United Nations Children's Fund) and EOC have jointly worked to remove misconceptions regarding polio vaccination by spreading printed material, involving notable figures of FATA and imams from mosques in the region to educate the public through sermons about the effects of polio," Aqeel Ahmad Khan, spokesman for the FATA EOC, told Pakistan Forward.
Two booklets have been prepared and printed in various languages to help the public understand the benefits of polio vaccination, he said. One answers frequently asked questions, while the other provides religious decrees from scholars in support of polio vaccination.
A polio-free FATA is "a significant milestone", Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Governor Zafar Iqbal Jhagra said in a statement July 26.
He congratulated EOC Co-ordinator Dr. Fida Muhammad Wazir and his team for their diligent efforts in achieving this goal.
"We should continue to strive to keep FATA polio free forever, which is very much possible," Wazir said, according to Dawn.
In line with the National Emergency Action Plan 2017-18, authorities are hiring female vaccination teams -- which have no gender barrier to worry about when dealing with mothers -- and renewing their focus on micro-plans to ensure the inoculation of every child.
The FATA Expanded Programme on Immunisation team will continue working hard to keep the region polio free, said Wazir, according to Dawn.