At least 250,000 children in the tribal agencies of north and south Waziristan run the risk of being left out of the ongoing polio immunization programme due to terrorist threats. The latest round of the programme had to be postponed on Monday in the two agencies besides Bara tehsil in Khyber agency as the Taliban has banned the campaign as long as drones continue to pound these areas.
This is the first campaign being conducted by the government after the threat was issued in mid-June. The three-day campaign had hoped to cover 34 million under-five children across the country.
The Taliban had issued the ultimatum in June arguing that polio affected only few in comparison to drones which killed large numbers indiscriminately. “After consultation with the Taliban Shura, servant of Mujahideen in North Waziristan Agency, Hafiz Gul Bahadur has decided that there will be a ban on polio campaign as long as drone strikes are not stopped,” a Taliban statement had said.
The Taliban also view such campaigns as a means by the U.S. to infiltrate their areas. Referring to Shakeel Afridi — the doctor who helped the CIA confirm the presence of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Abbotabad by getting his family’s DNA samples through a health programme — the Taliban argue that the polio campaign is a front for the U.S. to spy.
Mazhar Nisar at the Prime Minister’s Monitoring and Coordination Cell for Polio Eradication, said despite the setback, efforts were on to firewall these areas by setting up polio immunization camps at entry and exit points to the Federally Administered Tribal Agencies and between Khyber-Pukhtoonkhwa (KP) and the tribal areas.
Ahead of this round of immunization, the government had also roped in cricketer Shahid Afridi to lend muscle to the campaign in the tribal areas as he hails from Khyber. Pakistan along with Afghanistan and Nigeria are the only three countries to report polio cases last year. Maximum number of cases — 77 per cent — was reported from among Pashtuns living in the tribal areas and KP though this ethnic group accounts for only 15 per cent of the population.
Recently, the government had claimed headway in controlling the spread of polio with only 22 confirmed cases being reported from 13 districts across the country between January and July this year. This is an improvement over the 58 cases reported from 24 districts between January and June 2011.