NORTH WAZIRISTAN, Pakistan- Polio, a disease that has been close to global eradication for many years, is slowly making a return in the Middle East. In June 2012, the Taliban in the North Waziristan region of Pakistan banned the vaccination leaving the children in the area vulnerable.
Hafiz Gul Bahadur who banned the vaccines, announced that no more vaccines will be administered to Pakistanis until the CIA’s drone campaign ends. This announcement came just days before over 150,000 children were scheduled to be vaccinated. Much of the United States drone campaign activity has focused on North Waziristan due to the heavy presence of the Taliban throughout the region. Bahadur also called the vaccination campaign a cover for further espionage by the United States, who previously used a similar cover to gather information on Osama Bin Laden who was eventually found and killed in 2011.
The polio vaccine has been around since the 1950’s and was used throughout the world as a preventative measure resulting in polio being largely eradicated. Polio is a highly contagious disease that attacks the nervous system, usually resulting in paralysis. Young children are generally the most vulnerable and once they are infected, they live with the disease for the rest of their lives. Because polio is incurable, prevention is the only way the disease will be successfully eradicated.
In 2012, there were three countries in the world where polio was still considered to be endemic: Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan. The disease had mostly been cornered to regions within the countries. Polio had been eradicated from most other regions in Pakistan with the exception of North Waziristan and other areas known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA. The FATA are semi-autonomous areas of land along the Afghan border that have suffered from extreme poverty and conflict for decades.
Because of the ban on the vaccine, polio has begun to slowly spread back into formerly cleared areas. Elias Durry, the head of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative in Pakistan voiced his concern in a telephone conversation with Reuters saying:
“The risk is that as long as the virus is still circulating, and as long as we have no means of reaching these children and immunizing them to interrupt virus transmission, it could jeopardize everything that has been done so far- not only in Pakistan, but also in the region and around the globe.”
These concerns later turned into reality when the World Health Organization (WHO) released a report in November 2013 that the polio virus infecting children in Syria had originated in Pakistan. WHO officials contradict claims made by officials in Syrian president Bashir al-Assad’s government who claimed that the virus was brought in by Pakistani’s fighting with the rebels. Instead, the virus has been slowly spreading around the region for almost a year and a half. When the fighting in Syria blocked vaccination teams from getting in, the world began to see new infections in a country that eradicated polio in 1999.
– Colleen Eckvahl