One year on: Taliban ‘ban’ leaves over 150,000 at risk from polio

Suspended campaigns in North, South Waziristan lead to increase in cases.

Zulfiqar Ali June 28, 2013
A total of 17 cases have been reported in the country with four in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. PHOTO: AFP

DERA ISMAIL KHAN: On June 15, 2012, Taliban commander Hafiz Gul Bahadur ‘banned’ anti-polio drives in North Waziristan. Following his decision, the Mullah Nazir Group also banned anti-polio vaccination in South Waziristan on June 25, 2012. One year on, more than 150,000 tribal children below the age of five have been deprived of immunisation against the preventable disease.

At present, no meaningful negotiations on the topic are being conducted with the Taliban either via tribal jirgas or government channels.

Earlier, the political administrations of both North and South Waziristan initiated a dialogue with the Taliban to restart the anti-polio drives through a jirga, but failed to convince them to allow the resumption of vaccinations. The jirga itself is under the influence of the Taliban, and lacks the moral backbone to stand against their position. The North Waziristan Grand Jirga, for example, endorsed Bahadur’s ban on polio vaccines on July 17, 2012.

While commenting on this endorsement, Khadim Hussain, an expert on the war on terror, told The Express Tribune the jirga cannot speak its mind and make independent decisions. “It (the jirga) does not represent collective interest because it is under the influence of Taliban commanders.”

On December 17, 2012, on instructions issued by the FATA Secretariat, the North and South Waziristan political administrations issued conditions which required tribesmen to hold valid documents to get their children vaccinated. But, due to strong resistance from the tribesmen, the political administrations lifted these conditions.

Ihsan Dawar, a journalist from North Waziristan, said the political administration issued these conditions without a viable anti-polio campaign. He added placing these conditions was also a disadvantage for the political administrations.

Despite the ‘ban’ on polio vaccinations, the government set up immunisation centres in Agency Headquarters Hospital Miranshah, Mir Ali Hospital in North Waziristan and Agency Headquarters Hospital Wana, South Waziristan. However, residents, in fear of Taliban retribution, do not dare to take their children to these vaccination centres.

Currently, campaigns against the polio virus are being carried out in the Frontier Constabulary and army camps in North and South Waziristan along with the Mehsud areas of Sarwakai and Ladha. The Mehsud areas have been under the control of Pakistan security forces ever since Operation Rah-e-Nijat, which was conducted in 2009 against the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). According to Inter-Services Public Relations statistics, 10,014 families have been repatriated to their homes and children from these households have received polio vaccinations under the watch of security personnel.

“I understand polio drops are important for my children,” said Aboth Khan while referring to three-year-old Lashma Khan and eight-month-old Abdullah. Khan, who is a resident of Shakai in Wana, South Waziristan, said his children were not receiving the drops due to a stoppage of the immunisation campaigns. Even now, Aboth Khan is willing to take a risk for his children’s lives despite the fact that they were among the 3,000 children who were administered expired polio drops on June, 24, 2012.

Like Aboth Khan, other tribesmen also want their children free of the preventable disease. However, 150,000 children who had nothing to do with the US drone strikes or the Taliban angst have been deprived of polio drops for the last year. There is no telling when the polio campaign will resume for them.

So far, a total of 17 cases have been reported in the country with four in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and nine in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Of the latter, seven have come from Khyber Agency while two have been reported in North Waziristan. On May 3, the first case was reported from Mir Ali in North Waziristan with one-year-old Arifa testing positive for the crippling disease. The second case was reported from the same area on May 23, when the virus paralysed 36-month-old Abu Sohail for the rest of his life.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 29th, 2013.


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