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FATA has most cases in Pakistan
By Ashfaq Yusufzai
PESHAWAR – Children in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) continue to be haunted by polio because of Taliban threats against anybody giving or receiving the vaccine.
Militants in North and South Waziristan have recently renewed threats against immunisation efforts, indifferent to the vaccine’s success in cutting worldwide polio cases from 1,920 in 2002 to 650 in 2011.
“The responsibility for the crippled children lies squarely with the Taliban because they didn’t get vaccination despite willingness by parents to immunise their children,” said Dr. Muhammad Sadiq, agency surgeon for North Waziristan, where the Taliban June 15 demanded a halt to polio vaccines. Militants in South Waziristan recently took a similar stance.
Negotiating with militants
North Waziristan officials June 19 began negotiating with militants to restore the immunisation programme after federal officials urged Khyber Pakthunkhwa (KP) Governor Masud Kausar to open such talks.
The order from the Prime Minister’s Monitoring and Co-ordination Cell for Polio Education denounced militants for using children as bargaining chips and deplored militant indifference to the prospect of children contracting disabilities.
However, it’s unlikely the Taliban will budge, negotiator Muhammad Saleem told Central Asia Online. Indeed, at a June 22 shura, the Taliban again said it was opposed to vaccinations.
The talks are too late, in any case, for Janullah Shah, a farmer in Mami Rogha village, Miranshah Tehsil.
Taliban opposition kept him from vaccinating his 7-month-old son, Bahaullah, and the boy has since contracted polio and become paralysed. Janullah said he curses the Taliban for their stance against vaccinations.
Polio cases this year
FATA has recorded 10 cases, most of any of the 12 infected areas in the country, said Dr. Pervaiz Khan of the Expanded Programme on Immunisation operation at the FATA Directorate of Health.
In six Taliban-controlled areas in North Waziristan, especially, the public health picture is dismal as no vaccinations have been given there for more than six years, leaving more than 17,200 children vulnerable to the virus, he said.
This year, vaccination coverage in the seven FATA agencies was less than 45%, compared to the target of 95% set by the Augmented National Emergency Polio Eradication Plan 2012, Dr. Altaf Bosan, head of the Pakistani polio programme, told Central Asia Online.
“The Taliban have been instrumental in denying OPV,” he said, referring to the oral drops children receive.
He stressed the success of vaccination programmes that do get carried out.
“Swat recorded 20 cases under the Taliban in 2008,” he said, referring to a time when vaccines were not administered. “Since the expulsion of the Taliban (in 2009), Swat hasn’t registered any cases.”
“In 2009, during the Taliban’s influence, Bajaur Agency became the most polio-endemic area in Pakistan with 40 cases, but now children there get proper vaccination,” Bosan added.
And this year’s FATA cases – one in North Waziristan and nine in Khyber Agency – all occurred in areas where the Taliban has blocked immunisations, Pervaiz said.
Vaccinating displaced children
Displacement, ironically, has been a blessing for some Khyber children.
In March, Peshawar High Court Chief Justice Dost Muhammad Khan ordered immediate measures to vaccinate children who were migrating to Peshawar from Khyber Agency, ending a gap in their immunisation coverage.
“We have established 40 transit points where children coming from Bara, Khyber Agency, were being administered OPV,” Dr. Jan Baz Afridi, head of KP’s vaccination programme, said.
“About 150,000 children in Khyber Agency had missed polio vaccinations since September 2009,” he said, “and we are regularly vaccinating about 48,000 displaced children.”
Vaccines and religion
“Being Muslims, Taliban militants should respect rights of the children in line with teachings of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him),” Shahnaz Wazir, focal person for the Prime Minister’s Monitoring and Co-ordination Cell for Polio Eradication, told Central Asia Online, expounding upon the stance put forth in the order.
The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) instructed parents to safeguard their children against diseases, she added. “It is the duty of Muslims to make sure that their kids grow healthier, and the Taliban should realise it.”
Once a child contracts polio, options are limited, but an exercise regimen can minimise disabilities.
“Poliomyelitis has no cure,” Dr. Mahboobur Rehman, chief of physiotherapy at the Hayatabad Medical Complex, told Central Asia Online. “That’s why we tell people to immunise their children. ... We give affected children physical therapy so they can walk with crutches or use wheelchairs.”
The Taliban are just adding to the ranks of the disabled by thwarting immunisations in FATA, he said.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation is asking the government to use whatever windows of opportunity exist to reach children, including calling upon the Civil Military Co-ordination Committee to step up vaccinations on busy routes leading to and from remote areas.