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Law and order in Lakki Marwat a spanner in Pakistan’s anti-polio drive

Vaccination drive suspended as militants target polio workers
A health worker administers polio vaccine drops to a child during a polio vaccination campaign in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa on January 24, 2022. AFP
A health worker administers polio vaccine drops to a child during a polio vaccination campaign in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa on January 24, 2022. AFP

The anti-polio drive in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Lakki Marwat district - rougly one million people - was suspended on Monday in view of the security situation, where militants killed six policemen earlier this month.

Lakki Marwat Deputy Commissioner Fazal Akbar announced that the five-day polio campaign, part of a nationwide drive, was postponed till further notice. The decision was taken in view of the poor law and order situation.

As many as 193,252 children of Lakki Marwat were about to be administered polio drops during the five-day vaccination campaign as Pakistan tries to combat the debilitating disease. The country has reported 20 cases this year, with two of those reported in Lakki Marwat. Of the remaining cases, 17 were reported in North Waziristan and one in South Waziristan.

“This is a matter of security,” District Health Officer Abdu Gul told Aaj News when asked about the duration of this suspension. “We are hopeful that the drive will restart in two to three days.”

When quizzed on the number of cases in the district, he replied in the negative. “No case has been reported this year.”

This claim contradicts official statistics and reported cases on the website of the Pakistan Polio Eradication Programme.

Southern Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, which includes Bannu, North and South Waziristan, had been identified by the polio programme as the area most at risk after wild poliovirus was detected in environmental samples in the last quarter of 2021. Positive environmental samples of wild poliovirus in KP were found in Dera Ismail Khan and Bannu divisions.

“If we can eliminate the poliovirus from southern KP, we will succeed in eliminating polio from Pakistan altogether. We are actually quite close to the finish line, and we are determined to get there as soon as possible,” said Federal Health Minister Abdul Qadir Patel in a statement.

Over 100,000 “Sehat muhafiz” (health guardians / vaccine administrators) are engaged in the vaccination drive to inoculate those under five years of age.

Dr Shahzad Baig, the coordinator of the National Emergency Operation Centre, said that the anti-polio campaign required collective action at all levels to eradicate the poliovirus from the country completely.

“Our aim is to ensure timely and repeated vaccination of eligible children. High-risk districts are our top priority, and we are keen to eliminate the poliovirus from the challenging areas while protecting the rest of the region as well,” he said.

Pakistan and Afghanistan are the one two countries to have never interrupted the transmission of wild poliovirus.

Polio workers in Pakistan, who are escorted by police during innoculation drives, are often targeted. The problem is most pronounced in conservative Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and areas on the Pakistan-Afghan border, where vaccinators are viewed with suspicion.

The primary reason for the opposition stems from a CIA-organised fake vaccination drive to help track down al-Qaeda’s former leader Osama Bin Laden in the city of Abbottabad. Bin Laden was killed during a US military operation in that city in 2011.

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