Pakistan resumes Taliban-banned polio vaccinations

Foreign-funded program had been called un-Islamic

A Pakistani volunteer administered polio vaccine drops to a girl in Mingora in the troubled Swat Valley yesterday. A Pakistani volunteer administered polio vaccine drops to a girl in Mingora in the troubled Swat Valley yesterday. (Abdullah Khan/Associated Press)
By Asif Shahzad
Associated Press / September 9, 2009

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ISLAMABAD - Authorities in Pakistan’s Swat Valley have resumed vaccinating children for polio, a practice the Taliban had banned as un-Islamic before they were beaten back by an army offensive, an official said yesterday.

The Islamist militants, who began taking over the valley in 2007, had declared a campaign to inoculate against the potentially crippling disease was un-Islamic because it was foreign-funded. Swat Taliban leader Maulana Fazullah said the vaccinations were a Western conspiracy to make Muslim children infertile.

The army says it has killed more than 1,800 suspected militants in Swat since launching its latest offensive there four months ago. The government is now trying to bring the valley back to normal. Most of the 2 million people displaced in the offensive have returned home.

Violence, however, continues to assail the northwest.

A suspected US missile strike yesterday killed eight people near the Afghan border, and the Pakistani military said it had killed 24 militants in an ongoing offensive in the Khyber region. Trucks carrying supplies to NATO and US troops were attacked in two parts of the country.

In Swat, government official Khurshid Khan, a doctor, said the last inoculations against polio were administered nearly a year ago.

Six cases of polio have been discovered since vaccinations resumed Monday. Some 215,000 children are a target of the three-day campaign, he said.

He said Pakistani health officials had to quit their campaign last September after several attacks by the militants. The department made another attempt to restart in January, but that was quickly abandoned after another attack.

“Our staff was beaten, and our equipment was snatched,’’ Khan said.

Swat resident Yar Mohammad said the people of the valley welcomed the resumption of the campaign.

“The militants have been depriving our children of our basic right. It is our national responsibility to secure our kids against all diseases,’’ said Mohammad, who lives in the valley’s main city, Mingora.

Polio has been eradicated in most countries. But in Pakistan, Nigeria, Afghanistan, and India it remains endemic, according to the World Health Organization.

The disease mostly strikes children under age 5 and is spread when people come into contact with the feces of those with the virus. It usually attacks the nervous system, causing paralysis, muscular atrophy, deformation, and sometimes death.

Pakistan is still battling Taliban fighters and other militant groups across its rugged northwest bordering Afghanistan.

Late yesterday, a suspected US missile struck a house in a village in the North Waziristan tribal region, killing eight. It was the second such attack in the region in the last 24 hours.

Pakistani intelligence officials said five more people were wounded, adding that all the casualties were militants linked to Pakistani Taliban.

The United States has fired scores of missiles from unmanned drones into the tribal regions since last year in a campaign targeting Al Qaeda and Taliban commanders.

Meanwhile, Pakistan’s military said it had killed 24 insurgents in the Khyber region, a toll that could not be independently verified.

In the Orakzai tribal region, suspected militants killed four high school students, officials and a resident said.

Government official Mohammad Yasin could only confirm that gunmen fired on students in the Kalaya village area. However, the resident, Yousuf Mohammad, said he saw masked gunmen kill four boys. Others were wounded.