Via the Wall Street Journal: Pakistan Military Offensive Poses New Perils in Country's Polio Crisis. Excerpt:
Tens of thousands of children who haven't been immunized against polio are pouring out of North Waziristan with their families to escape the Pakistani military offensive there, bringing new perils to a country already struggling to cope with the crippling disease.
Pakistani Taliban militants, the target of the military offensive that began a week ago, have banned polio vaccinations in North Waziristan in recent years, meaning that no children there have been inoculated since June 2012.
The ban is largely the reason Pakistan is one of only three countries where polio is still endemic. More cases of the virus were reported in Pakistan this year and last than in any other country—prompting the World Health Organization to declare a global health emergency earlier this year. Most of Pakistan's polio cases this year have come from North Waziristan, a tribal area along the Afghan border where Pakistan's military has begun the sweeping operation.
Now, the mass exodus of people from the region poses a chance to vaccinate children who were largely unreachable before, government officials say. "I would see this as an opportunity," said Ayesha Farooq, the prime minister's point person on grappling with Pakistan's polio crisis, who says authorities will register where families are staying and go door-to-door to administer polio drops. "These are children we haven't been able to access for two years now."
But health workers warn that the humanitarian crisis unleashed by the military offensive also threatens to spread the virus further.
"There is a severe outbreak of polio in North Waziristan, an uncontrolled outbreak," said Bilal Ahmed, the team leader for polio for the tribal areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for Unicef, the United Nations children's agency, who estimates more than 100,00 children under the age of 5 from the region haven't had polio vaccinations. "When they come out, they bring the virus with them, and there is a risk of infecting the host communities."
The military gave North Waziristan's civilian population—an estimated 550,000 people—notice to leave the region last week ahead of plans to begin a ground offensive there. Most of these displaced people have moved away from areas governed by tribal law, and primarily to the town of Bannu and other towns in the adjacent province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.
In the cramped camps set up for those displaced from North Waziristan, these children can more easily infect each other with the paralyzing illness, Dr. Ahmed said. Polio is spread through unsanitary conditions and poor sewage, especially through fecal matter, making the camps a potential hotbed for contagion.
The many more displaced people flocking to homes of relatives in Bannu pose a another, potentially more difficult, challenge: many are much harder for health workers to identify and reach.