09/04/2013, 00.00
PAKISTAN
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Taliban threats against immunisation raise polio epidemic risks in Pakistan

From North Waziristan, the disease is spreading to other provinces (Sindh and Punjab). Islamists blocked the vaccination campaign. At least 1.5 million children have not received the vaccine. For WHO expert, the successes achieved in recent years in combating the disease are at risk.

Islamabad (AsiaNews/Agencies) - Pakistani health authorities warn that a serious polio outbreak could spread across the country in the coming weeks. This acute viral disease affects the nerves, causing paralysis or death in the most serious cases. North Waziristan is one of the areas that are most at risk with five new cases confirmed by the authorities.

The problem is compounded by the Taliban who have threatened healthcare workers and civilians who accept vaccination. As indicated by an expert of the World Health Organisation (WHO), this could "seriously jeopardise the success in fighting polio that has been achieved in the past couple of years."

Pakistan is one of only three countries left in the world where polio is endemic. In 2011, it had 198 confirmed cases, the highest number of any nation in the world, but in 2012, this was brought down to 58 through a vaccination programme backed by the United Nations. Islamic extremists could however reverse this progress.

So far this year, there have been 27 confirmed polio cases in Pakistan-the third highest total in the world after Somalia and Nigeria.

Two powerful Pakistani Taliban militants have banned vaccinations in North and South Waziristan over roughly the past year because of their opposition to US drone strikes.

Gunmen have also killed over a dozen vaccination workers and police guards in different parts of the country. Many suspect the Taliban of carrying out these murders, although the group has denied the allegation.

Militants claim that the vaccine is meant to sterilise Muslim children and have accused health workers of being US spies.

The allegation gained traction after the CIA used a Pakistani doctor to try to confirm the presence of Osama bin Laden in 2011 in Abbottabad, not far from the capital Islamabad, under the guise of an immunisation programme.

Children are the big losers in this war between the Taliban and the government. With more and more of them getting the disease, parents and family are desperate because they cannot afford to pay for the vaccines or the journey to Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where vaccinations are also performed.

Polio can spread widely and unnoticed before it starts crippling children. On average, about one in 200 cases will result in paralysis.

Cases have been reported across the country, including Punjab and Sindh. Under the original WHO vaccination programme, planned to immunise 34 million children, but 1.5 million have not received the vaccine because of security threats.

Something similar is happening in Somalia, where 108 new cases of polio (out of 192 registered throughout the world) were recorded this year.

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