The National Institute of Health (NIH) has confirmed that four new cases of the poliovirus have been discovered in North Waziristan, among them a 17-month-old child named Malala.
“These are the first polio cases of 2014,” said Dr. Imtiaz Ali Shah, the focal person for polio in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. Data provided by the NIH reveals that all four cases originated in the restive North Waziristan tribal agency.
The four infected individuals are 14-month-old Yasmin from Idak; 17-month-old Malala from Wozikhel; 19-month-old Noor Samida; and 8-month-old Muniba. All four were never vaccinated for the poliovirus following a Taliban ban on the vaccine in both North and South Waziristan agencies for the past 18 months.
“The biggest hurdle to eradicating polio is inaccessibility [of tribal areas] due to security concerns,” said Dr. Shah. In North Waziristan, the Taliban have announced that they will not permit polio vaccinations until the government can stop all U.S. drone strikes.
According to Dr. Shah, another hurdle is the misperception that Dr. Shakil Afridi, the doctor who helped the CIA track down Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, used a fake polio vaccination campaign as his cover story. “It is impossible to track someone by simply initiating a polio campaign,” said Dr. Shah, adding: “To track someone, you need to get their DNA. In the case of a polio vaccination, there are no tissue samples taken. Children are simply administered the Oral Polio Vaccine (OPV).”
“That fake program has created a lot of trouble in eradicating polio from the region,” said Dr. Shah, referring to Dr. Afridi’s fake hepatitis vaccination campaign. “The media keeps showing pictures of Dr. Afridi administering polio drops to children, which has convinced the Taliban, and clerics that he used a fake polio vaccination drive,” he said. People in Pakistan are quick to believe conspiracy theories, said Dr. Shah, adding: “[Ignorant] people find reasons in it for themselves.” He said that many people also wrongly believed that polio only affected children. “It can also affect adults and it can be much worse for them, as in their case the virus attacks the respiratory system,” he added.
Pakistan recorded 91 cases of polio in 2013, with the majority of over 60 being reported from the tribal areas. Pakistan is the only polio-endemic country in the world where polio cases rose from 2012 to 2013. Last week, the World Health Organization termed Peshawar the world’s largest poliovirus ‘reservoir.’ “More than 90 percent of the current polio cases in the country are genetically linked to Peshawar,” it said.