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[PESHAWAR] Attempts to eradicate poliomyelitis in Pakistan, one of the last refuges of the crippling disease, received a setback on January 13 after a bomb blast near the main polio centre in Quetta, capital of Balochistan province, left 13 policemen and two other people dead. 

Attacks by fundamentalist Taliban (scholars) militants opposed to polio vaccination have left at least 80 people dead since 2013. Most of the victims were security personnel charged with providing security to vaccination teams.

Following the Quetta blast, provincial home minister Mir Sarfaraz Bugti told SciDev.Net that the polio campaign was being suspended until tighter security could be arranged. “For the time being the polio campaign has been suspended, though it will be resumed shortly,” he said.

Officials said the blast was set off by a suicide bomber who apparently targeted a van bringing the policemen to the polio centre for escort duties. The Taliban in Pakistan have claimed responsibility for the attack. “Taliban are opposed to polio vaccination under the misconception that these were part of an international conspiracy to render recipients incapable of producing children,” Muhammad Ali, a polio officer in Quetta city said.

Pakistan recorded more than 300 cases in 2014 — the highest figure for any country — with 90 per cent of cases recorded in areas where Taliban militants have influence, Ali said. About 70 per cent of the children who were diagnosed positive for polio in 2014 had not received the oral polio vaccine due to a ban on vaccination imposed by the Taliban. 

In 2015, after Pakistan’s army cracked down hard on the Taliban and provided armed security to vaccinators, the number of new cases had dropped to 52. Neighbouring Afghanistan, where the Taliban are active, recorded 19 cases in 2015.

UN agencies have been calling on Pakistan and Afghanistan, the last two countries where the disease is endemic, to take steps to eradicate the virus which primarily affects children, often leading to paralysis of the limbs and death.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s South Asia desk.