03/03/2015, 00.00
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Pakistan, polio eradication: hundreds of parents arrested for refusing to vaccinate children

Pakistani authorities have arrested and imprisoned at least 470 parents and issued arrest warrants for hundreds of others. It is the first mass arrest to take place in the country. They are charged with "endangering" public health by refusing to vaccinate children. Pakistan is one of three countries in the world where the disease is still endemic.

Islamabad (AsiaNews / Agencies) - The Pakistani authorities have arrested more than 470 parents and issued an arrest warrant for hundreds more, for opposing the vaccination against polio campaign for their children.

It is the first mass arrest ever carried out by the local administration of Peshawar, in the northwest of the country, with the backing of the central government in Islamabad. According to the charges, they are "seriously endangering public health". The operation is underway is part of the initiatives to eradicate the disease from Pakistan, one of the three countries in the world where it is still endemic.

The arrests were made yesterday, in the context of the immunization campaign launched in the northwestern province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, where polio is still widespread. The local government has announced that parents will be released only after signing the permit for the vaccination of their children. Riaz Khan Mehsud, senior administration official in Peshawar, confirmed the government's "iron fist" against unruly parents and anyone who opposes "will go to jail."

In June 2014, the World Health Organization (WHO) urged all international travelers who travel to Pakistan to get vaccinated against polio on arrival, to prevent the further spread of the disease. Recently the WHO recognized India's efficiency in the fight against polio, which has been eradicated from the country. The situation in neighboring Pakistan and particularly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province capital Peshawar is the direct opposite. It is the main basin of diffusion and contagion. Of 83 new cases, 79 were documented in the city.

Pakistan is one of three countries in the world where polio is still "endemic". In 2014 there were 306 cases, the highest number recorded in the last 14 years. There are at least 13 confirmed cases so far this year, concentrated in the northwest of the country.

In 2012, two groups Pakistani Taliban have effectively imposed a ban on vaccinations against polio, in North and South Waziristan. The militants banned vaccinations 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.


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