THERE is good news from Tirah: children in the area have been vaccinated against polio and other preventable diseases for the first time in several years due to the cooperation of Ansarul Islam, a militant group active in Khyber Agency. The vaccinations had been suspended since 2009 because of hostilities between the militants and the army. The militants apparently played a key role in convincing community members to get their children vaccinated. But while there has been a breakthrough in Khyber Agency, the situation in North Waziristan is grim as vaccinators still don’t have access to children there. A ‘ban’ was imposed by a jirga in the region earlier this year in protest against US drone strikes. Some estimates suggest over 100,000 children may have been missed out in the current anti-polio drive in the Agency because of the ban.
Unpleasant as it may be for the state to deal with militants, where the protection of children against polio is concerned even this bitter pill may have to be swallowed. More so, those politicians who have sympathies or ideological affiliation with tribal people need to convince locals — tribesmen as well as militants — to have their children immunised. For example Imran Khan is headed to South Waziristan to lead a ‘peace march’ in October in protest against US drones. Mr Khan and other leaders of religious and political parties with influence in Fata need to highlight the importance of the anti-polio campaign with as much zeal as they condemn drones. Fata is particularly important for along with parts of Karachi and some districts of Balochistan, the tribal belt is a major area of concern regarding polio transmission. Drones and polio are separate issues. Children must not be made victims of the crippling disease for the sake of politics, and efforts to convince the tribal people must continue. Sustained efforts, as the Tirah example shows, can produce results.