ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s prime minister has asked the military to help protect polio vaccination workers in the insurgency-plagued northwest. The request comes as authorities say a Taliban ban on vaccinations in 2012 and deadly attacks on anti-polio teams have prevented thousands of children from getting inoculated.
Pakistan is one of only three countries where polio remains endemic. Recent national eradication efforts have suffered critical setbacks, threatening global gains against the crippling disease.
Militant attacks in recent months have killed or injured more than 30 vaccination workers and police officers escorting them. Pakistani Taliban leaders have banned immunization campaigns in two North and South Waziristan districts that border Afghanistan.
The violence and the Taliban ban are blamed for this year's increase in polio victims in these areas. Officials say the country has recorded at least 43 cases, most of them in the Waziristan area. Pakistan reported 93 polio cases in 2013.
On Thursday, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, for the first time, asked the military to protect polio workers.
Elias Durry heads the World Health Organization’s polio eradication program in Pakistan. He praised the stepped-up effort against the crippling virus.
“The program is missing close to 260,000 children both in North and South Waziristan and some neighboring areas," said Durry. "And this lack of vaccination in these areas have been going on since June of 2012 and that is manifested currently, by you know, almost exclusively most of the cases that the country has now, most of the children who are paralyzed, are coming from those areas.”
The militant-dominated Waziristan and adjoining tribal areas are considered some of the last wild polio virus reservoirs in the world. Taliban extremists have blocked polio vaccination teams, accusing them of acting as American spies.
The suspicions stem from a CIA-sponsored fake vaccination program that helped the U.S. military locate and kill Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011. Both United Nations and Pakistani officials blame the United States for undermining the anti-polio program.
U.N. officials worry polio outbreaks in Pakistan may result in some countries imposing travel restrictions on Pakistanis.