Pakistan recently detained hundreds of parents who refused to vaccinate their children against polio. The country's polio eradication coordinator talks to DW about the detentions and the efforts to eradicate the virus.
The South Asian nation is under immense international pressure to eradicate polio after missing several deadlines. The disease is not only a threat to children in Pakistan but it has also endangered global efforts to end the virus. The country is one of the three places in the world, along with Afghanistan and Nigeria, where polio remains endemic.
Pakistan's previous initiatives to free itself of polio have been a failure due to continued attacks on polio vaccinators by militants, refusal from parents to vaccinate their children, and the country's inability to administer vaccinations to all children.
In a DW interview, Ayesha Raza Farooq, the Pakistan prime minister's focal person for polio eradication, says that the recent detentions in the country's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province do not reflect polio vaccination enforcement policies at the national level.
DW: How serious has the polio situation in Pakistan become since provincial governments are now detaining parents of children?
Ayesha Raza Farooq: There is no policy to detain anyone for refusing polio vaccines. This clearly is a very local decision by the administration and they may be called upon to answer for the causes (of the arrests). Since health is a provincial subject in Pakistan, the provincial governments are responsible for implementing the polio program and all other health initiatives.
Polio vaccine refusals are consistently declining with figures plummeting to 0.11 percent. However, we continue to impress upon the provincial governments to engage each and every family that refuses vaccines for any reason and to continue doing so through the persuasive means available - which include male and female social mobilizers, religious support persons, and influential community members in order to convert refusals.
The polio situation in Pakistan has seen a major turn-around in the last few months with access regained in the FATA region to over 260,000 children who were hitherto denied vaccination along with marked improvement in campaign quality elsewhere in the country with independently assessed coverage well over 90 percent.
A group of international experts on polio constituted by the World Health Organization - known also as the Technical Advisory Group - met in February this year and reviewed Pakistan's progress towards polio eradication. The body declared Pakistan's progress as encouraging.
There has also been progressive improvement in the security situation as a result of key measures which include the formation of a special cabinet committee responsible for polio security. Thanks to these improvements, we are well on-course to stopping Polio virus transmission.
Why has Pakistan so far failed to eradicate polio?
Pakistan is a frontline state in the war on terror and has been facing a wave of terrorism with over 70,000 lives lost - girls' schools and polio campaigners have also been targeted. More than 85 percent of polio cases were reported from security compromised areas. Over 92 percent of the children belonged to Pashtun families and more than 84 percent were below the age of two years.
It should also be considered that vaccination teams were not able to reach more than 260,000 children in North and South Waziristan due to a ban imposed by the Taliban in 2011. However, the vaccination teams were able to reach these children following the May 2014 military operation.
Why do a large number of parents refuse to vaccinate their children?
The vaccination refusal rate in Pakistan is the lowest among the three polio endemic countries. The major challenges we face now are the children who were missed during vaccination campaigns or the children who we are not able to immunize with polio vaccine despite the fact that their parents do not oppose it. The reasons for missed children include the children who were on the move at the time of campaign and were far away from home.
What measures has the government put in place to counter threats from extremists who are against polio vaccination?
An active military operation is underway in the FATA region to root out terrorists - the result is that polio campaigns have resumed in areas where no campaign had been held for the past two and a half years. The army is providing pro-active support for safe conduct of polio campaigns.
The prime minister has also constituted a cabinet committee dedicated to polio security. Under this committee, a director general from the Ministry of Interior has been made a focal person for polio security.
The deployment of security personnel and cordoning-off approaches are being used increasingly to ensure the safety of polio workers. Security risk assessment has been made an essential part of campaign by planning for risk mitigation. In every district, a campaign only starts once a security plan is in place.
What do provincial authorities aim to achieve by arresting the parents of children who are not being vaccinated?
The district authorities are under immense pressure to ensure that every child is protected against the wild polio virus. Such steps are based on local-level decisions taken by the administration and do not reflect policy at the national level.
Ayesha Raza Farooq is the Pakistan Prime Minister's Focal Person for Polio Eradication.