PESHAWAR, June 23: There is very little likelihood of thousands of children in North Waziristan Agency being vaccinated against polio in near future as the attempts of the local political administration and Islamic scholars to convince the Taliban to lift the ban on vaccination fail.

Of late, the Taliban banned the administration of oral polio vaccine to children in the agency, saying the ban will be lifted only after the US stops drone strikes in the tribal region bordering Afghanistan.

“There is a slight chance that immunisation will begin soon because the matter is very serious this time. In the past, such bans imposed by the Taliban were tackled by the government and local scholars through jirgas and talks,” a relevant official has told Dawn on condition of anonymity.

The ban on vaccination was first slapped in September last year after the Taliban declared it un-Islamic. However, it was withdrawn after local Islamic scholars convinced the Taliban that OPV protects children against physical disability.

In March this year, the Taliban again prohibited vaccination but later allowed it after Islamic scholars met their commanders and convinced them in the light of Islamic teachings that it was the responsibility of all parents to vaccinate their children against diseases, including polio. And earlier this month, the Taliban yet again announced not to allow anti-polio campaigns in North Waziristan Agency and said the restriction would remain until the US stopped drone strikes in tribal areas.

After the ban, top local Islamic scholars met local Taliban leaders to pave the way for a meeting with their senior commanders to persuade them to allow vaccination of children in the agency.

“This time it is hard to convince them (Taliban) because stopping drone strikes is beyond the reach of local scholars,” an official said.

He feared that the Taliban operating in South Waziristan Agency might impose a similar ban in their areas as they, too, were targeted by US drones.

The official said the Taliban of Orakzai Agency and Frontier Region Bannu were also reported to be considering banning immunisation on similar grounds.

“The Taliban know the significance of vaccination and also know that its stoppage may disable their children. However, this time, they have realised that the world is giving top priority to polio and therefore, they are using it to their advantage,” the official said.

Local Islamic scholars have also planned to show Taliban leaders the pro-immunisation decrees issued by leading scholars besides telling them that oral polio vaccine is purchased by the UN, an impartial body, not the US.

Dawn has learnt that the North Waziristan Agency’s political authorities have begun talks with the Taliban over the immunisation ban on the directions of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Governor Masood Kausar.

A relevant official insisted that the said talks were likely to bear fruit paving the way for immunisation campaigns in the agency.

Meanwhile, United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) has expressed concern over the safety of vaccinators in North Waziristan, an official said.

“We are also very concerned about the safety of our frontline workers, who are the true heroes of the immunisation campaign by working in very challenging circumstances to ensure all children are reached,” Dennis King, the chief of the Unicef Polio Section in Pakistan, told Dawn.

He said Unicef was concerned about the non-vaccination of children in Fata and feared that it might snowball into major health epidemic.

“All members of anti-polio team, nationals and internationals alike, are concerned about the future of 1,61,000 children, who run the risk of not being vaccinated in North Waziristan,” he said.

When contacted, Fata (health) director Dr Fawad Khan said failure to vaccinate children against polio could lead to epidemic as it happened in Bara tehsil of Khyber Agency, where nine of the Fata’s 11 polio cases had been reported this year.

“We must take care of our children and protect them against eight vaccine-preventable childhood diseases through getting free immunisation facilities by the government,” he said.

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