Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In Pakistan's Polio Epicenter, Workers Struggle against Threats and Suspicion

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In Pakistan's Polio Epicenter, Workers Struggle against Threats and Suspicion

Article excerpt

On the second floor of a local dispensary in Peshawar, Dr. Sheda Hussain stands in front of a 50-person immunization team of female health workers and technicians. Flicking through three Power Point presentations, he guides them through the process they must follow during their visits to homes around the city.

In two weeks, the government-funded Lady Health Workers will take part in a provincial immunization campaign against measles. As the women go door to door, they will also distribute polio drops to unvaccinated children and newborn babies for the first time, Mr. Hussain says.

Peshawar is on the front-lines of Pakistan's polio battle. Ninety percent of Pakistan's polio cases were genetically traced to the city earlier this year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The WHO called the city the "world's largest reservoir" of the virus.

Two years ago, polio was nearly eradicated across the globe. On Monday, the WHO declared a global health emergency, saying those gains could be lost if Pakistan, Syria, and Cameroon did not crack down on the virus, which has spread across their borders this year.

Pakistan is especially problematic: 86 percent of the 68 global polio cases registered in 2014 stem from Pakistan, and the majority of re-infected areas can trace the virus back to the country within the last 12 to 18 months.

Local health workers in Peshawar are concerned that they may not be able to address the root causes of the current outbreak.

The city's proximity to the country's tribal belt, its constantly mobile population of refugees and migrants, and pockets of deep resistance from locals make the job incredibly difficult.

Threatening location Teams like Hussain's, along with a slew of volunteers, managed to immunize almost every one of the more than 700,000 children that are registered on government lists in Peshawar during its last polio vaccination campaign this spring.

It's an enormous feat, but one that may ultimately fail to make a significant dent in the explosion of polio cases registered in Pakistan this year. Peshawar, the capital city of Pakistan's northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province (known as KP), is located next to FATA, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The remote mountainous area along the Afghanistan border is known for a spotty state presence, drone strikes, and Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters.

Every time a conflict breaks out in FATA - such as a drone attack or Army operation against militants - thousands of locals flee to other areas within Pakistan.

"As a large city, Peshawar inevitably receives a huge influx of these internal refugees," most of whom have not been vaccinated, says Jan Baz Afridi, a doctor and deputy director in charge of immunization in KP. "FATA is a major cause of the disease's spread to Peshawar. …

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