Authorities in Pakistan have arrested more than 470 parents and issued warrants for hundreds of others for refusing to have their children vaccinated against polio. The crackdown is part of renewed efforts to eradicate the crippling disease from Pakistan, one of only three countries where polio remains endemic.
The arrests took place during a fresh immunization drive Monday in the restive northwestern Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province where the polio virus is most prevalent.
The detained parents were swiftly sent to jails for refusing the polio vaccine for their children. Provincial police have vowed to sternly deal with the cases. Authorities say the detainees will be freed only after a written apology and an assurance their children will get the immunization drops.
The new three-day drive is aimed at vaccinating more than 2.7 million children across the province.
Last year, the country recorded 306 new cases, the highest number in 14 years. So far, Pakistan has recorded 13 polio cases in 2015, most located in the northwest.
The rise in polio cases in 2014 led to pressure from international donors to ensure that immunization drives reach every child.
Rotary International is among the donors helping Pakistan and other countries improve their anti-polio efforts.
Aziz Memon is Rotary’s National PolioPlus Chair for Pakistan. He admits security concerns coupled with political turmoil in recent years have hurt the effort. He says the country continues to play an increasingly critical role in eradicating polio from the planet.
“We are almost done," said Memon. "Pakistan is a tumbling block and hopefully in a year you will see that the plans we have we will be able to give you some good news.”
Memon and U.N. health officials appear confident that Pakistan’s new measures can help it overcome polio in the coming years. They point to the country’s past effective immunization drives that brought it to the verge of being declared polio free in 2012.
Religious groups in rural Pakistan have long seen the anti-polio campaign as a Western conspiracy to sterilize Muslims and Islamist militants suspect it is a front for espionage.
That suspicion stems from the disclosure in 2011 that the Central Intelligence Agency organized a fake hepatitis immunization drive in Pakistan as part of its efforts to track down al-Qaida leader Osama Bin Laden.
The revelation has prompted deadly attacks on polio teams and bans on vaccination drives in insurgency-hit tribal areas of Pakistan. More than 70 people, both health workers and security personnel, have died in the violence.
Security concerns forced health officials in violence-hit southwestern Baluchistan province to postpone a 10-day polio immunization campaign on Monday.
Health workers also took to the streets in the remote Zhob district in Baluchistan to protest last month’s killings of four members of a polio team. The protesters demanded the government bring to justice those responsible.