Thursday, January 12, 2017
Detection of a rare strain of polio in Pakistan’s southwestern Baluchistan province has alarmed authorities and prompted them to launch special immunization campaigns for children younger than 5.
After concluding a five-day response campaign across the provincial capital of Quetta earlier this month, health officials said they plan to give anti-polio drops starting January 16 to millions of children across 27 districts of the province, including those near the Afghan border.
The new, intensified immunization effort follows detection of the rare Type 2 strain of polio, which the World Health Organization found in sewage samples in one of the districts in the province.
Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria are the only three countries in the world where the crippling virus is still active.
Despite security challenges and administrative weaknesses in national immunization efforts, Pakistan’s anti-polio fight achieved remarkable progress in 2015 when the country of about 200 million reported only 19 cases, down from a record of 309 cases in 2014.
Aftab Kakar of the provincial emergency operation center in Quetta says that Type 2 polio struck about 15 children three years ago in the Killa Abdullah district toward the Afghan border.
But routine immunization campaigns coupled with special response efforts at the time stopped the transmission of the virus until WHO’s findings released a couple of weeks ago confirmed its re-emergence in Baluchistan, where only one polio case was reported in 2016, Kakar said.
“The international community has shown its concern over the detection of this (Type 2) virus in Pakistan because the rest of the world has eliminated it and reported no new cases for years,” he noted.
Type 2 virus
Pakistan stopped vaccinating children against the Type 2 polio during routine immunization campaigns since last April, believing the strain had been successfully eliminated from the country as in the rest of the world, Kakar said.
“Now, our major concern and fear is that the group of children who were born after April 2016 are not immunized against Type 2 poliovirus. That group is now vulnerable and is in danger of contracting the virus,” he warned.
On Wednesday, provincial health officials reported the first polio case of the new year in Killa Abdullah, but the strain of the virus was not known immediately.
Baluchistan shares a nearly 1,200-kilometer border with Afghanistan and as many as 20,000 people move across the main Chaman border crossing everyday, where special vaccinating teams are deployed to ensure children moving in both directions are given anti-polio drops.
Col. Changez Zeb, in charge of Pakistani border forces, explained the anti-polio operation to VOA during a visit to the busy crossing point.
“This is the sign of the polio vaccination,” he said while pointing to the inked fingers of three young Afghan children driven in an improvised cart by their parents after receiving the medicine. “The polio team has given them the vaccination while entering and while exiting from Pakistan. They have three to four teams here. If one of them misses (the children) the other one catches them.”
Pakistani authorities insist that successes against polio is the outcome of national immunization efforts coupled with recruiting hundreds of thousands of influential Muslim clerics to persuade parents in remote, relatively conservative districts who used to resist the vaccination drops for their children because of religious beliefs or suspicions it would hurt fertility.
The refusals and militant threats to vaccinating teams undermined anti-polio drives in recent years. But Kakar says that refusals have lately dropped from thousands to hundreds, while improved security in Baluchistan has also played a key role in conducting effective immunization campaigns.
Extremist groups view anti-polio campaigns as a cover for Western spies, prompting deadly attacks on vaccinators during immunization campaigns across Pakistan. A bomb explosion in January 2016 killed 15 people outside a vaccination center in Quetta. The anti-state Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the bloodshed.
Opposition is also blamed on a fake CIA-sponsored immunization campaign that led to the famous May 2011 covert American military raid against fugitive al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad, killing the world’s most wanted man.
On Tuesday, the Interior Minister appeared before the Senate to answer questions on the fate of the missing activists, yet he only managed to infuriate the senators present. Their response of a walkout – the parliamentary standard rebuke – was not only justified, but tame considering the gravity of the Interior Minister’s statements. Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan deserved a tongue lashing that would reorient his senses by force, and further consequences for his highly irresponsible statements.
It should be evident why such a drastic response is necessary; Pakistan’s sitting Interior Minister claimed that “banned sectarian organisations could not be equated with other banned terrorist organisations” and hence, the former deserved some sort of leeway. He went on to say that the Shia-Sunni conflict was 1300 years old, and thus not the current government’s problem, and that past governments had allowed sectarian groups to contest elections too. What is infinitely worse is the fact that these statements were not made due to some misguided yet genuinely held belief, they were made to protect himself from criticism for his meeting with Ahmed Ludhianvi, the chief of banned sectarian organisation Ahle-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ).
|CH NISAR PROTECTS TERRORISTS|
The plain fact is that most of what he said is clearly wrong. Claiming that sectarian organisations are not “purely terrorist” is to ignore the countless acts of violence that they have committed – from bombings to murders of prominent minority members. Organisations such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Sipah-e-Sahaba didn’t gain notoriety by just spreading divisive and anti-minority propaganda, but by backing up this propaganda with violence such as such as the 2013 Quetta bombings which killed over a hundred members of the Hazara community.
This is the textbook definition of terrorism, and in fact the National Counterterrorism Centre – a government department – lists them as “terrorist organisations”, yet the Interior Minister feels there is a difference. Even the Afghan Taliban professed sectarian ideals. ASWJ may not be currently holding a gun – which it has at several points in the past – but it is the spiritual successor of these groups, the vanguard of this toxic ideology and the precursor of future terrorist groups – there is a reason why these groups are banned, and not just disapproved of.
Furthermore, dismissing the Sunni-Shia strife as “a 1300-year-old conflict” is not only highly insulting, but is tantamount to saying that the government has no role in it. We expect out Interior Minister to strive towards ending this conflict, not to say that that it has always been so and always will be. In the end, such remarks only legitimise the the actions of the violent majority.
Such a flippant attitude by the Interior Minister towards Pakistan’s most divisive conflict – that too only to protect himself – is highly regrettable. It is high time Mr Nisar starts serving the whole nation, all of its people and sects – not just his party and himself.
Days after four prominent rights campaigners and bloggers "disappeared" mysteriously, activists say yet another Pakistani rights activist has gone missing. According to his colleagues, Samar Abbas, a middle-aged IT worker and head of the anti-militancy Civil Progressive Alliance, disappeared under mysterious circumstances on Saturday.
Abbas's colleagues alleged that his disappearance is not an isolated incident and is part of a larger conspiracy to silence liberal voices. "This seems to be an organised attempt to shut the progressive and liberal voices in the country," Talib Raza, a colleague of Abbas told Pakistani media. Meanwhile the whereabouts of four activists who went missing in a span of days last week still remains unclear. Missing Activists
The four men, Waqas Goraya and Asim Saeed had disappeared on January 4, while poet and academic Salman Haider disappeared on Friday and Ahmed Raza Naseer has been untraceable since Saturday.
Many fear that they might have been abducted by intelligence agencies and their life could be in danger. Rights groups including Human Rights Watch and the United Nations had expressed concern over the rise in abductions and enforced disappearances of activists.
One of Pakistan's most powerful establishments, the all powerful army and the intelligence agencies, including the ISI have been blamed for these arbitrary detentions. For years this has been rampant in Balochistan, where a decades long insurgency seeking secession from Pakistan is gaining momentum.
According to exiled campaigners Pakistan has resorted to a kill and dump policy in the province, where activists are picked up by agencies, tortured in custody, murdered and their bodied dumped in isolated areas.
What has alarmed rights groups in Pakistan is that despite their attempts to bring the disapperences into focus, the practice continues unchallenged and is spreading to other areas.
According to Sindhi freedom movement, Jeay Sindh Muttahida Mahaz (JSMM) over a hundred of their activists have been extra judicially killed by Pakistani agencies in the recent years.
Colleagues of Pakistani activist Samar Abbas say that he is missing under unknown circumstances.
The Civil Progressive Alliance, which Abbas heads, said on January 12 that Abbas disappeared in the port city of Karachi on January 7.
Abbas's disappearance comes amid a spate of similar incidents in which four liberal bloggers were reported missing in several different cities between January 4 and January 7.
The Human Rights Watch monitoring group and the United Nations have expressed concern over the disappearances.
"No government should tolerate attacks on its citizens," David Kaye, the UN's special rapporteur on freedom of expression, was quoted as saying.
Talib Raza of the Civil Progressive Alliance said Abbas's disappearance seemed to be part of "an organized attempt to shut the progressive and liberal voices in the country."
Pakistan's Interior Ministry has said it is investigating the disappearances.
Chairman Pakistan Peoples Party Bilawal Bhutto Zardari paid a visit to the Iranian Embassy in Islamabad. Iranian Ambassador H. E Mehdi Honardoost received PPP Chairman on his arrival at the Embassy. Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari condoled the death of former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and signed his comments on condolence book.