28 January 2013 | EN
Health workers fear a spurt in Pakistan's polio and measles cases following militants' ban on immunisation
[PESHAWAR] A ban on vaccinations ordered by the Taliban in Pakistan – enforced last month by the shooting of nine health workers – has resulted in an increase in infectious childhood diseases, especially measles and poliomyelitis.
Last month (December), nine polio vaccinators, seven of them women, were shot dead by alleged Taliban militants in separate incidents in Karachi and Peshawar cities.
The shootings halted an immunisation campaign mounted by the WHO in Pakistan where polio is endemic. In 2012, Pakistan recorded 58 polio cases, 26 of them in the northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province where Taliban militants are active.
"The current turmoil has resulted in female health workers deserting the campaign," Mubashir Khan, a WHO doctor, tells SciDev.Net. "Water samples show that the polio virus is circulating in Peshawar."
Khan blames a resurgence of measles, which claimed the lives of 400 children in Karachi alone in 2012, on the violent opposition to vaccination by the Taliban.
"The year 2013 will prove much harder for children if they aren't immunised against these two vaccine-preventable ailments," Khan said.
"Pakistan's immunisation coverage stands at 65 per cent against the 90 per cent set by a United Nations Millennium Development Goal to be met by 2015. In KP province and adjacent Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the overall vaccination rate is even lower – 57 and 43 per cent respectively," Khan says.
Besides militancy, poor performance by vaccinators is also a problem. "We have to look at all aspects to come up with solutions," Altaf Bosan, national coordinator of Pakistan's polio monitoring programme, told SciDev.Net.
Bosan has devised a new strategy of "low-profile polio immunisation campaigns" to reach some 3.5 million children who were left unvaccinated following the shootings of health workers on 17 and 18 December.
"There is a big danger to children from both measles and polio for which vaccination is the only answer," Bosan said.
The UNICEF which supports Pakistan's anti-polio mobilisation also fears for the safety of its workers. "We are waiting for the government to resume work," a UNICEF official said.
Jan Baz Afridi, head of the government's immunisation programme in KP, tells SciDev.Net that the Taliban sees vaccination as a ploy by the US to render Muslim populations infertile and engage in espionage.
Pakistan is one of three countries in the world where polio is yet to be eradicated, the other two being Afghanistan and Nigeria.
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