Over 16,000 children below the age of five will miss their polio vaccines in the North Waziristan tribal region following a ban announced by a powerful local warlord on vaccination campaigns in the region.
Hafiz Gul Bahadur, the alleged host of the deadly Haqqani network of Afghan Taliban, said last week that the top shura of militants has decided to ban the vaccination drive which, they believe, was a cover for US spies.
The move will seriously impact polio eradication efforts in Pakistan, which is among the three countries where polio is still prevelant, with 197 fresh cases reported last year.
Health officials believe that the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or Fata, has become the reservoir of the disease because of its difficult terrain and reservations of local tribesmen about the vaccine.
A three-day vaccination drive kicked off on Monday in ‘high-risk’ agencies of Fata, which include Khyber, Bajaur, Mohmand and lower and central subdivisions of Kurram agencies. The target is to immunise 777,012 children below the age of five against the crippling disease.
A health official confirmed that North Waziristan Agency will be skipped. “North Waziristan was on the list until today. But now we have taken it off due to the threat from Hafiz Gul Bahadur,” Shahibzada Khalid, the deputy director of Expanded Programme on Immunisation (EPI) Fata cell, told The Express Tribune.
Khalid categorised North Waziristan as a ‘high-risk’ area and said that if the ongoing vaccination drive was not carried out in the region, thousands of children will be at risk. “The virus may also spread to other agencies and neighbouring districts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa,” he added.
Health officials, however, believe they might find a way out of the dilemma. “All stakeholders, including the government, World Health Organisation (WHO) , NRDF and UNICEF are trying to find a safe way to vaccinate children in North Waziristan,” said Dr Muhammad Azam, the focal person for the Fata polio monitoring cell.
The tribal regions of South Waziristan, Orakzai and Upper Kurram are ‘low-risk’ areas and hence not on the list of regions to be covered during the ongoing campaign. Health authorities have formed 2, 451 mobile, 195 sedentary and 79 transit teams to undertake the task.
So far this year, 22 fresh polio cases have been confirmed in the country – nine in Khyber Agency and one each in North and South Waziristan agencies.
In March this year, the WHO had warned that if the polio virus was not contained, Pakistan could face serious consequences, including travel and visa restrictions, from the international community.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 19th, 2012.