Photo: Associated Press of Pakistan

Unregulated Border Crossings Hamper Polio Eradication Efforts, Claims Pakistani Official

Pakistan’s health minister says that the movement of Afghans in Pakistan has impeded the country’s efforts against polio. His comments came as Pakistan launched a week-long countrywide polio vaccination campaign on Monday, November 27.

Afghanistan and Pakistan are the only countries where polio continues to spread while the virus was active in 125 countries when the Global Polio Eradication Initiative began in 1988. The latest polio vaccination campaign will target more than 10 million children in Pakistan and Pakistani-administered Kashmir.

Linking refugees to polio is the newest allegation from Pakistani authorities as they continue the unprecedented deportation that has sent nearly 400,000 refugees back to the impoverished Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Previously, Pakistani authorities had claimed that undocumented refugees are the main sources of insecurity and other illegal activities, branding the crackdown as a counter-terror operation. The Pakistani army claimed yesterday that the suicide bomber who targeted a military convoy on Sunday, November 26,  in the Bannu city of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was an Afghan citizen.

“We are importing the virus from Afghanistan and it’s not possible to stop people from entering the metropolis, though we can definitely ensure that children are administered polio immunization drops at the city’s entry points,” Pakistan’s Health Minister, Saad Khalid Niaz told reporters while launching the program.

Two out of five polio cases this year were found in Karachi, Pakistan’s most populous city in the southern province of Sindh. “Karachi’s positive samples have been found to be linked to Afghanistan. The situation is worrisome given the fact that the samples have tested positive repeatedly. It’s a threat not only to children in the region but also to those residing in other parts of the world,” Pakistan’s Health Minister added.

Pakistan has repeatedly come close to eradicating polio in the past, but long-running misperceptions in rural areas and attacks on vaccinators have made it difficult to succeed. Some people in rural Pakistan believe that the vaccination campaign is a foreign conspiracy to harm their children, while others attack vaccinators because of religious beliefs. The use of a vaccinator in 2011 by American intelligence agencies to locate the hideout of Al-Qaeda leader, Osama Bin Laden, which led to an operation that killed him, further swayed public perceptions against the vaccine campaigns.

In Afghanistan, polio is only spreading in two eastern provinces, Nangarhar and Kunar, which border Pakistan. All five polio cases detected this year were in Nangarhar. Before the Taliban took control in August 2021, the group often attacked health workers who were giving vaccines. Even though the group has allowed a vaccination campaign since taking over, there is still violence against health workers in the country. The U.N. says that at least eight polio vaccinators were killed last year, and nine the year before. It is not clear if the Taliban was behind the attacks.

In September, the UN launched a four-day polio vaccination campaign to reach 1.5 million children under five in western Afghanistan. The UN’s health agencies, WHO and UNICEF, continue to lead door-to-door vaccination efforts across the country. Children in Afghanistan are particularly vulnerable to polio due to the ongoing humanitarian crisis, lack of clean water, and weak health services. According to the UN agencies, malnutrition rates are above emergency levels in more than two-thirds of the country.

Poliomyelitis (polio) is a highly infectious viral disease that can cause paralysis or death. The virus grows in the intestinal system and is shed through feces. The infection typically spreads in areas with poor water and sewage sanitation.