Pakistan investigates polio outbreak in troubled northern region

The country's anti-polio campaigns are regularly marked by violence

A health worker administers a polio vaccine to a child in Quetta, Pakistan, on May 23. EPA
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Pakistani health authorities on Friday confirmed the seventh case of polio this year, saying it was registered in the former Taliban stronghold in the northwest, a region bordering Afghanistan.

The outbreak, after the first polio case of 2022 was registered in the same region in April, is a blow to the Islamic nation's efforts to eradicate the disease, which can cause severe paralysis in children.

All seven cases have been reported in North Waziristan, a district in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where the government has launched an investigation into the outbreak.

Parents in the region often refuse to get their children inoculated.

Authorities were taking steps to protect the gains made by the government's polio eradication programme in recent years, Health Minister Abdul Qadir Patel said on Friday, urging parents to get their children vaccinated.

Pakistan’s anti-polio campaigns are regularly marked by violence.

Islamic militants often target polio teams and police assigned to protect them, falsely claiming the vaccination campaigns are a western conspiracy to sterilise children.

North Waziristan, a former tribal region, was a stronghold of the Pakistani Taliban until recently when the military claimed to have cleared the region of militants following several widescale operations there.

A health worker administers polio vaccine to a child during a door-to-door polio vaccination campaign in Dera Ismail Khan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Pakistan on 24 May 2022. EPA

Attacks, however, still persist.

For the past 25 years, Pakistan has carried out regular inoculation campaigns in which health workers go door-to-door to give polio drops to children.

Most of the workers are women, as they can get better access to mothers and children. The anti-polio teams are often escorted by security forces.

This year, the government carried out three nationwide anti-polio drives — in January, March, and in May.

During the March campaign, gunmen in northwestern Pakistan shot and killed a female polio worker as she was returning home after a day of vaccinations.

And, in January, gunmen shot and killed a police officer providing security for polio vaccination workers, also in the country’s northwest.

Pakistan and Afghanistan are the only countries in the world where polio remains endemic.

In 2021, Pakistan reported only one case, raising hopes it was close to eradicating the disease.

Updated: June 04, 2022, 6:09 AM