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Asia

How far is Pakistan willing to go to fight polio?

Pakistani police recently arrested nearly 500 parents for refusing to allow their children to be vaccinated against polio in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. DW examines why vaccination efforts have failed up to this point.

At least 470 parents were arrested on March 2 at the beginning of a three-day regional vaccination campaign in the provincial capital of Peshawar and surrounding districts.

This is the first time authorities in the South Asian nation have resorted to such measures amid local resistance to the government's eradication efforts.

Pakistan is one of three remaining countries, along with Afghanistan and Nigeria, where polio remains endemic. Polio is a crippling and potentially fatal viral disease that mainly affects children under the age of five.

The highly contagious virus spreads best in unsanitary conditions, making vaccination essential. A report published last October by the Independent Monitoring Board highlighted country's inadequate political commitment to eradicate the disease which "puts the entire global goal in jeopardy."

Pakistan Impfung Impfhelfer Polio Impfung

Polio vaccinators are a target for extremists who allege that the health campaigns are used by the US for underground operations

Alarming rise

The Islamic Republic is under pressure to eradicate the disease after the World Health Organization (WHO) recommend restrictions last year for all Pakistanis traveling abroad to help reduce the international spread of the virus.

German news agency dpa quoted Pakistani Federal Health Minister Saira Afzal Tarar as saying that the government would now have a "zero tolerance policy" for vaccine refusal.

Pakistan declared a national emergency for polio in 2011 in order to stamp out the crippling disease. But only three years later, the country reported 306 polio cases - the highest figure in 15 years, exceeding the previous record of 199 infections in 2001.

More than 80 percent of the cases were reported from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province bordering Afghanistan. Last year, the WHO described Peshawar as "the world's largest pool of polio virus."

Reasons for resistance

Polio vaccination campaigns have suffered greatly since militants began targeting polio vaccinators a few years ago. Extremists allege that these campaigns are used by the US for underground operations.

Many of the parents who refuse to vaccinate their children think that vaccinations are a tactic used by "the West" to sterilize Muslims.

However, Sona Bari, a WHO spokeswoman for polio eradication said in a DW interview that the failure of polio vaccination efforts is not only because of the militants, although they and the climate of fear have definitely played a role, but also because of weaknesses in these areas in terms of management and accountability.

International organizations like the WHO or UNICEF are working closely with Pakistan to assist the country in eliminating poliovirus.

Pakistani federal and provincial governments are trying to improve joint-coordination for the implementation of its National Emergency Action Plan for polio eradication.

Sona Bari emphasizes that, "the international community must also show solidarity. This is not about Pakistan failing the rest of the world, but it is about the rest of the world standing by Pakistan and helping one of the last countries to cross the line. The entire world will benefit when Pakistan eradicates polio."