The Pakistani government have issued hundreds of arrest warrants for people who are deemed ‘anti-vaccination’ and refuse to have their children vaccinated against polio.
The deputy police commissioner for Peshawar, Riaz Khan Mahsud, told the New York Times that there have been as many as 16,000 cases of parents refusing to vaccinate their children. Mahsud added that there is “total determination” on the part of the police to arrest people if they refuse to get vaccinations, and that there is “no leniency” towards the measure.
Pakistan’s crackdown on those refusing to get vaccinations is a response to a growing polio outbreak in the country that is rapidly escalating. Last year, there were 306 cases of polio in Pakistan, according to the New York Times, a significant increase from previous years.
Pakistan is one of only three countries in the world where polio is still endemic, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The WHO warns that failure to fully eradicate polio in these remaining areas could result in as many as 200,000 new cases every year in the next 10 years, worldwide.
The polio outbreak in Pakistan mirrors the recent cases of measles in the United States. Both diseases were all but eradicated thanks to the development of vaccines to combat them.
But unlike in the United States, Pakistan’s polio outbreak and the anti-vaccination sentiments are closely linked to the country’s fragile security situation. Most of the polio cases have been in the northwest province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan. Much of this area is under Taliban control.
The recent increase in fighting in these areas between the government and militants has caused residents to flee, which helps spread the disease to other parts of the country. The violence has also made it difficult for health workers to access remote villages to administer the vaccine.
The Taliban is also waging an anti-vaccination campaign that is often enforced by violence. The militants have portrayed the polio vaccination campaign, and the health workers who administer it, as a symbol of the 2011 CIA plot that set up a fake hepatitis-C vaccination campaign in an attempt to locate Osama bin Laden. The covert operation attempted to find out if bin Laden was hiding in a tightly guarded compound in the city of Abbottabad by using a Pakistani doctor to offer vaccinations.
Mufti Muneeb Ur Rehman, a prominent Pakistani cleric, told NPR News that although he personally encourages people to get the vaccine, “There are certain areas in Pakistan where the people resist [the polio vaccine] because the CIA used the polio campaign for intelligence purposes.”
In their attempts to stop vaccinations, the Taliban began attacking health workers in 2012, and have killed at least 65 workers since then, according to the New York Times.
Ayesha Raza Farooq, the official in the prime minister’s office charged with combating Pakistan’s polio crisis, condemned the most recent attack that killed two polio workers earlier this month.
“The prime sacrifice of polio workers and security personnel in line of duty will not be forgotten and culprits will be taken to task,” Farooq said in a statement on February 17.
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