Civilian exodus triggers polio spread fears

June 27, 2014 - 12:00:00 am

BANNU: Pakistani health officials are rushing to vaccinate hundreds of thousands of children against polio amid fears that a civilian exodus from a tribal area where the virus is rampant could spread the disease around the country.

Nearly half a million people have fled a military operation against Taliban strongholds in North Waziristan, a hotspot for the crippling disease in Pakistan.

Children in the tribal district have not been vaccinated since Taliban and local warlords banned health teams from giving out drops in June 2012.

Tens of thousands of families have fled to the town of Bannu, close to North Waziristan, while hundreds more have moved further afield to Lakki Marwat, Karak and Dera Ismail Khan towns, since the offensive began in mid-June.

Officials have begun a vaccination campaign in Bannu and three other districts adjacent to North Waziristan, vaccinating both resident families and newcomers fleeing the offensive.

“We are vaccinating both local and displaced children, the target is to vaccinate more than 200,000 children,” doctor Akbar Jan, a senior health official in Bannu, said.

The campaign in areas adjoining North Waziristan began -- unannounced -- on Monday. 

“Displaced persons were a threat to the host communities, now we have the opportunity to vaccinate both host community and displaced families,” Jan said.

More than 50 cases of polio have been detected so far this year in militant-infested North Waziristan, out of 82 cases across the country -- and 103 worldwide.

A World Health Organisation (WHO) official in Bannu said the campaign would continue one day a week during the fasting month of Ramadan, which begins at the weekend. 

Pakistan is one of only three countries, along with Afghanistan and Nigeria, where polio remains endemic, and efforts to eradicate it have been badly hit by rumours about the vaccine.