The inability to vaccinate children in some parts of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) and other sensitive places in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) will make Pakistan the last country in the world to eradicate polio, concluded a senior official from the K-P health department.
“If the virus from Fata and Afghanistan is not controlled immediately, all efforts and resources dedicated to the eradication of polio in other areas will remain futile,” said an official closely involved with polio eradication campaigns in the region while requesting not to be named.
Various countries and international organisations previously helped Pakistan with its campaign. Disappointed with government response to security challenges in K-P and Fata, some of these donors have not extended their assistance this year, he added.
“Pakistan has been given a $127 million loan from Islamic Development Bank for a three-year period, 2013-2015, to eradicate polio, but the number of polio cases in 2014 has gone up by 700%, compared to the same time last year,” the official said.
The country’s polio count has already reached 47, with almost all cases being reported from K-P and Fata. “If polio cases increase at this speed the figure will likely cross 100 in the next few months,” he said, adding the government should take this issue seriously and form a special committee to convince the Taliban on the benefits of vaccination.
The World Health Organization (WHO) and Unicef provided Rs124 million for Peshawar district’s Sehat ka Insaf campaign, which completed its last round on April 20. The official added Rs26 million have been allocated for Swabi, Mardan and Charsadda districts.
The widely-publicised campaign has been referred to as a success in Peshawar by Minister for Health Shahram Khan Tarakai. However, eradication efforts are constantly threatened by the mobility of people from areas where vaccinations are not allowed, as well as neighbouring countries where the virus is endemic.
On June 15, 2012, Taliban commander Hafiz Gul Bahadur banned polio drives in North Waziristan. Following his decision, the Mullah Nazir Group also banned polio vaccination in South Waziristan.
Moreover, a number of polio workers have been targeted over the past few months. Bannu experienced its first attack of this kind on March 31, 2014 when a lady health worker was gunned down.
The virus identified in Peshawar’s last polio case was genetically linked with Khyber Agency, while four new cases in Bannu were linked with the virus found in North Waziristan.
While commenting on Sehat ka Insaf’s 11th round in Peshawar district, Tarakai said WHO collected six environmental water samples from Shaheen Muslim Town and Larama on February 26. Two samples from Shaheen Muslim Town tested positive, and genetic sequencing indicated the polio strains are most closely linked to a virus detected in environmental samples in Behsud, Kunar in Afghanistan. Tarakai also said the positive samples from Larama showed a link with Bara in Khyber Agency.
The minister maintained the campaign in Peshawar can be considered a success because environmental samples taken from sewerage lines of Shaheen Muslim Town tested negative for poliovirus after the fourth round of Sehat ka Insaf. This union council had remained positive for poliovirus since July 2012 and transported the disease to Afghanistan and Fata.
The health department official interpreted this data in a different way, as it showed how new cases may be resulting from the virus spreading from outside K-P.
Earlier, while speaking about the particular vulnerability of Peshawar district, another senior official working on Sehat ka Insaf, Dr Mohammad Akram Shah, referenced the fluidity of the region’s population as a key challenge to the area. This includes people frequently moving from Fata or K-P areas bordering Fata – where the vaccination campaign is at risk or non-existent – to places where campaign efforts are under way.
Health ministers as well as WHO officials have acknowledged the importance of controlling the virus in Fata in the overall success of eradicating the virus from the province.
Recently, Tarakai demanded the K-P governor carry out a massive campaign like Sehat ka Insaf in Khyber Agency on a priority basis and also requested the Afghan government to establish vaccination camps at transit points on the Pak-Afghan border.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 22nd, 2014.