ISLAMABAD— The World Health Organization has declared Pakistan’s restive city of Peshawar the world’s “largest reservoir” of endemic poliovirus. The WHO officials fear Pakistanis could face tough international travel restrictions and visa policies unless transmission of the crippling disease is interrupted through urgent steps.
Researchers at WHO have determined that almost every polio case surfacing in the country during 2013 could be linked genetically to the strains of the virus prevalent in Peshawar.
They added that all the samples collected from various locations of the northwestern city have shown presence of the highly contagious wild poliovirus strain.
WHO’s emergency coordinator for polio eradication in Pakistan, Elias Durry, said local authorities need to take urgent action to strengthen vaccination campaigns to reverse the disturbing trend. He says the situation in Peshawar not only threatens gains the country has made against the crippling disease over the years, but has the potential to undermine global eradication efforts.
“Unless the polio eradication program in Pakistan is able to curtail the transmission in Peshawar, the expansion of the viruses to other places will not stop. So, it is critical that Peshawar, the way it is behaving now, really be able to find ways of interrupting these transmissions that have been consistent throughout the years,” said Durry.
Durry cited a rise in deadly attacks on polio vaccinators in and around Peshawar and elsewhere in the country for undermining the quality and coverage of recent national anti-polio campaigns. “The performance of Pakistan in the last few years was really on the right track until the threats on the vaccinators showed up,” he stated.
Islamist Taliban militants have frequently attacked polio workers in the country, accusing them of being American spies or part of a plot to sterilize Muslims.
However, most of the violence has taken place in Peshawar because the city borders Pakistan’s volatile tribal districts, where extremist groups have their bases and where the polio outbreak was explosive last year.
Durry did not rule out the possibility of Pakistanis being subjected to travel and visa restrictions if there is no rapid improvement in the polio-related situation. “I think this is a viable worry that one has to think about,” he said.
In neighboring India, no polio case has surfaced for a third consecutive year. Starting next month, all visitors to India from Pakistan will be required to show a record of their polio vaccination.
The WHO study has found that 90 percent of the polio cases in Pakistan last year were traced back to strains in Peshawar. It says that 12 of the total 13 polio cases in neighboring Afghanistan were also linked to the city, which is the capital of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
Speaking to reporters in Islamabad Friday, Imran Khan, the leader of the political party ruling the province, acknowledged the polio crisis facing the region and promised to intensify eradication efforts. But he blamed the United States for partly damaging the immunization efforts in Pakistan.
Khan said that the use of health officials like Shakeel Afridi by the American CIA to gather intelligence on militants has angered people in the province, which has resulted in violent attacks on vaccinators.
Pakistani medical doctor Afridi ran a fake vaccination campaign that is believed to have helped the United States locate and eliminate terror mastermind Osama bin Laden. The doctor has been sentenced to 33 years in jail -- a move that has caused frictions in Islamabad’s ties with Washington.
Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan are the only three nations where polio remains endemic. However, WHO officials say that Pakistan was the only country in 2013 that experienced a rise in polio victims.