WHO official blasts Taliban polio ban
Confirmed new cases raise fears of epidemic
A health worker administers polio vaccine to a child in Khairpur, in Sindh province
A Taliban ban on a polio vaccination drive is preventing Pakistan from finally eradicating the crippling disease, the country’s World Health Organization (WHO) representative said on Wednesday.
“Nothing can really be done unless the Taliban lifts the ban or allows the vaccination of children in North Waziristan,” Dr Nima Saeed, the acting WHO representative in Pakistan, told ucanews.com.
He was speaking in Islamabad after five new cases of polio were confirmed this week in the country’s restive tribal areas, where the Taliban banned the vaccination drive in June last year, accusing health workers of being spies.
The ban was imposed a year after Dr Shakil Afridi, a physician, conducted a polio vaccine campaign in Abbottabad as a ruse to help pinpoint the location of former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. The terror chief was later killed in a US military raid in May 2011.
At least 20 immunization workers have been killed by suspected Taliban militants in Pakistan since the imposition of the vaccine ban. Many areas are now considered too dangerous to continue the program.
Pakistan is one of only three countries left in the world where polio is endemic, according to the WHO. In 2011 it had 198 confirmed cases, the highest number of cases in any nation in the world.
With the vaccination drive Pakistan managed to reduce that number to 58 in 2012. It was hoped the program would soon lead to the end of polio in Pakistan.
The confirmation of five new cases takes the number of children affected by the highly infectious disease this year to 36, prompting the WHO to voice concern over a possible epidemic.
“The situation may worsen in these areas and more children could fall prey to the disease,” Dr Saeed said.
He believes that around one million children still need vaccination in the restive Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and the bordering tribal belt.
“The eradication of polio in Pakistan will be hard to achieve as long as militants remained opposed to the immunization drive,” he said.
The government, however, says it is still determined to wipe out the disease, despite the Taliban threat.
Last month, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif set up a National Task Force on Polio Eradication as part of government efforts to eradicate polio by the end of 2014.
The task force comprises himself, provincial chief ministers, governors, health ministers and the army chief.
According to officials, the Federal Health Ministry has advised Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to task paramilitary Frontier Constabulary with the immunization drive in restive areas.
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