The Pulse

Polio Nears Record Levels in Pakistan

Owing to attacks on vaccine workers, polio is growing at alarming rates in Pakistan.

Polio Nears Record Levels in Pakistan
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Boding poorly for Pakistan’s already dire public health situation, officials noted that the country could be headed to top its own record for polio cases in a single year by the end of 2014. According to a senior official at the Pakistan National Institute of Health (NIH) who spoke to AFP, “The number of polio cases, recorded this year has reached 187 and if it reaches 200, we will cross our own record of 199 in year 2000.” Along with neighboring Afghanistan and Nigeria, Pakistan is one of three countries worldwide where polio remains endemic. Owing to attacks on state and non-governmental organization vaccination workers in Pakistan, efforts to stall the disease have largely been unsuccessful. Access to Pakistan’s tribal regions remains especially difficult for vaccine workers due to security concerns and regular attacks by militants. Pakistan’s polio problem grew so severe that its citizens now face international travel restrictions.

According to Dawn, 59 people have died in militant attacks on polio vaccination teams since 2012. According to the NIH official, 130 of Pakistan’s cases in 2014, a clear majority, were reported in the northwestern tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. These areas are used as refuge by militants who are currently fighting the Pakistani military. Pakistan’s polio problem is thus a public health problem exacerbated by security problems. According to these militants, the polio vaccine program is a form of Western conspiracy, used primarily for espionage purposes. Their concerns gained some credibility when the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency acknowledged that it used vaccination programs as cover during the hunt for Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.

According to the World Health Organization, Pakistan’s endemic polio problem is exacerbating Afghanistan’s as well, with cases spreading across the porous northwestern border. Afghanistan has seen seven cases of polio so far this year. According to Dawn, Pakistan’s polio problem has actually grown worse over the past decade, growing from a low of 28 cases in 2005 to nearly 200 as 2015 approaches. The growth of the polio problem is linked with the proliferation of militants in the country’s northeast and the deterioration of the country’s internal security situation in general.