* Taliban attacks, vaccine ban leave many children exposed
* With polio virus circulating, disease taking hold again
* Dozens of children paralysed in Waziristan outbreak
* Dramatic progress towards wiping out polio in jeopardy
By Kate Kelland, Health and Science Correspondent
LONDON, Oct 18 A Taliban ban on vaccination is
exacerbating a serious polio outbreak in Pakistan, threatening
to derail dramatic progress made this year towards wiping out
the disease worldwide, health officials say.
Health teams in Pakistan have been attacked repeatedly since
the Taliban denounced vaccines as a Western plot to sterilise
Muslims and imposed bans on inoculation in June 2012.
In North Waziristan, a region near the Afghan border that
has been cordoned off by the Taliban, dozens of children, many
under the age of two, have been crippled by the viral disease in
the past six months.
And there is evidence in tests conducted on sewage samples
in some of the country's major cities that the polio virus is
starting to spread beyond these isolated pockets and could soon
spark fresh polio outbreaks in more densely populated areas.
"We have entered a phase that we were all worried about and
were afraid might happen," Elias Durry, head of the Global Polio
Eradication Initiative (GPEI) in Pakistan, told Reuters in a
"The risk is that as long as the virus is still circulating,
and as long as we have no means of reaching these children and
immunising them to interrupt virus transmission, it could
jeopardise everything that has been done so far - not only in
Pakistan, but also in the region and around the globe."
CORNERING THE VIRUS
Polio is a highly infectious disease that invades the
nervous system and can cause irreversible paralysis in a matter
of hours. A $5.5 billion global eradication plan was launched in
April with the aim of vaccinating 250 million children multiple
times each year to stop the virus finding new footholds, and
stepping up surveillance in more than 70 countries.
The virus has been cornered to just a handful of areas in
Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the three countries where
polio is endemic. Global cases have dropped by more than 99.9
percent in less than three decades, from 350,000 in 1985 to just
223 last year, according to the GPEI.
But so far in 2013, there have already been 296 cases
worldwide. Forty-three were in Pakistan, the vast majority in
children in the semi-autonomous Pashtun lands along the Afghan
border known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA),
which include North Waziristan.
Accusations that immunisation campaigns are cover for spies
were given credence when it emerged that the United States had
used a Pakistani vaccination team to gather intelligence about
al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who was found and killed by
U.S. special forces in Pakistan in 2011.
The Taliban ban, and associated security threats, mean the
polio virus could easily escape and spread back into previously
Tariq Bhutta of the Pakistan Paediatric Association said
there was little prospect that the militant Islamist group would
change its stance. He said attacks on health teams attempting to
reach children to immunise them were becoming both more frequent
and more violent.
"The vaccination teams are still going out, but at risk to
their lives," he told Reuters. "People can come up on motorbikes
and shoot them, and they've also started attacking the police
put there to protect the vaccination teams."
A Taliban bomb that exploded earlier this month near a polio
vaccination team in the northwestern city of Peshawar killed two
people and appeared to target police assigned to protect the
"This will only be solved if the polio teams can get access
to those children - either inside FATA, or when the children
move out into other areas," Bhutta said. "Without that I don't
see how things can improve. Rather I think things might get more
serious when the polio virus gets out into settled areas."
The GPEI says the FATA is the area with the largest number
of children being paralysed by wild poliovirus in all of Asia.
Four polio cases in children in Pakistan were reported in
the last week. Because the virus spreads from person to person,
the World Health Organization says as long as any child remains
infected, children everywhere are at risk.
(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)