ISLAMABAD — Pakistan is one of three countries left in the world where polio remains endemic, the other two being neighboring Afghanistan, and Nigeria. In Islamabad, with the help of the international community, the number of polio cases in Pakistan has dropped from 25,000 16 years ago, to just over 40 cases this year. But a Taliban ban on vaccinations and attacks on health workers mean that the highly infectious disease continues to spread.
Crippled by polio when he was just six months old, Hasmatullah Niazi does not blame his mother. She was just 16 when he was born and did not know about the virus.
Now, health teams go door to door to educate the public and try to vaccinate all children against the crippling virus.
But Taliban attacks, stretching from Peshawar in the north to Karachi in the south, have killed dozens of health workers and their police escorts.
As a result, some 260,000 children are still not vaccinated and the virus is spreading once again. Per Engebak, Polio Team Leader for UNICEF in Pakistan, said the security issue is preventing eradication. “If you have pockets in the country where you have the so-called reservoirs of the polio virus where they are in circulation in the sewage water or in the environment, these are transmission sites - into other parts of the country, and if you have contact, you will have transmission,” he noted.
For polio victim Niazi, the extremists' stance against vaccinations is tragic.
“I think they are committing a crime, they are committing injustice to their children," accused Niazi, "God forbid if they are victim of polio, their own life will be like in hell, the life of the kids must be, but their own life."
Taliban militants say immunizations are part of a Western anti-Muslim plot. The government is working with community and religious leaders to fight back against that belief.
Altaf Bosun of the Prime Minister’s polio eradication unit said the lack of accessibility into what he calls “problematic” areas has led to fresh outbreaks. “There is one choice - now I think there is no choice: polio eradication in Pakistan is must now," he said. "If anybody is deliberately sabotaging this one, then he or she is the enemy of the country, I can say this straightforward. We must be one against the polio eradication.”
For Niazi, whose muscles are getting weaker every day, it seems so obvious: if there is a remedy to the disease, use it.