PESHAWAR: With a high likelihood of becoming polio-free next year, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is facing the challenge of how to counter militant attacks on vaccinators on its soil.
The militants had killed union council polio eradication committee head Dr Zakaullah Khan in Peshawar last week to send a message across that they’re around and thus, terrifying vaccinators to stay away from administering oral polio vaccine against which they spread false propaganda for years.
Pakistan along with Afghanistan, the last two polio-endemic countries in the world, is facing militants, who first forcibly stopped vaccination in Swat in 2007 and then in North and South Waziristan agencies in 2012 and thus, leaving at least 160 children crippled.
Swat recorded the most nationwide polio cases in 2009 due to the ban imposed by the outlawed Pakistan Tehreek-i-Taliban chief, Maulvi Fazalullah, who then held sway in the region.
Official fears any laxity will reverse gains against crippling disease
Waziristan suffered immensely when 150,000 children remained unimmunised for two years. The situation improved when the army began action. Swat hasn’t recorded any polio case for five years now, while the number of such cases in Waziristan has dropped to two.
The authorities in Federally Administered Tribal Areas argue that both children got infected in Afghanistan where they had migrated due to the military campaign against Taliban militants.
The areas across the border, where they stayed, are under the influence of militants loyal to Fazalullah, a known opponent of OPV.
Officials associated with the anti-polio campaign in the province believe they cannot afford to abandon the efforts and lose the gains they have obtained in the prolonged fight against polio.
“The province is in eradication stage and any laxity could put its two-decade efforts in reverse gear,” an official told Dawn.
He said Dr Zakaullah stood stood undeterred despite killing and injuring of his several anti-polio colleagues in targeted militant attacks.
The official said the association of the deceased with anti-polio campaign had been exemplary for his colleagues, who remembered him a true worker.
Another official said despite meagre wages, vaccinators had played instrumental part in containing the crippling disease in KP and Fata, where the Taliban assassinated their colleagues.
He said a proposal was under consideration lately to give vaccinators more money but that didn’t get approval.
According to him, the militants have killed 41 anti-polio workers and injured 40, including women, and policemen deployed to protect door-to-door vaccination campaign but the efforts have not been halted.
Only last month, water sample collected in the city for polio examination tested negative, indicating that high quality vaccination campaign has taken place due to which the virus didn’t exist and the children were safe.
However, the massive migration of children from Afghanistan and tribal areas have brought the provincial capital to spotlight prompting the World Health Organisation to declare it one of three core polio reservoirs in Pakistan.
The official said as a result of the army’s operation, militants had been targeting vaccinators not only in Peshawar but also in Charsadda, Swabi and Mardan to block the global polio eradication campaigns.
“The province, which deploys 32,000 workers in each of the monthly vaccination campaigns to immunise around 5.4 million children in close coordination with the police and security agencies to vaccinate all children under five years of age and do away with the disease by next year in line with the prime minister polio plan 2016-17,” he said.
The official said in Fata and Frontier regions, around one million children were vaccinated, while the children accessibility rate was more than 99 per cent.
He said the authorities in KP and Fata banked on the support of security personnel to eradicate polio from the region for good.
Published in Dawn, September 16th, 2016