Pakistani officials say some 250,000 children in the country's northwest will likely not receive life-saving polio vaccinations due to threats from militants.
The social affairs secretary for Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas, Aftab Akbar Durrani, told VOA's Urdu Service on Friday that roughly 150,000 children in North Waziristan and 100,000 in South Waziristan are at risk of not getting vaccinated during a three-day national anti-polio campaign that begins Monday.
The tribal agencies that border Afghanistan are a known hub for Taliban and al-Qaida-linked militants.
Last month, a militant group based in North Waziristan and led by Hafiz Gul Bahadur warned anti-polio medical teams to stay away from the tribal agency or “face consequences.” Militants allege the effort is being used to gather information for suspected U.S. drone strikes in the region.
The militant group cited the case of jailed Pakistani doctor Shakil Afridi, who was accused of running a fake vaccination campaign to help the CIA obtain DNA samples to confirm Osama bin Laden's presence at a compound in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad.
U.S. special forces killed the al-Qaida leader in a covert raid in May 2011. Earlier this year, a Pakistani court convicted Afridi of helping militants, in a move sharply criticized by the United States.
FATA's social affairs secretary says local officials and non-governmental organizations are working with tribal elders and clerics to help convince the Taliban and other militant groups to allow the immunization campaign to take place in North and South Waziristan.
Durrani tells VOA, “one of the UNICEF-funded NGO's — National Rural Development Foundation (NRDF) — is working on our communication strategy, especially approaching religious leaders who are in touch with such elements [Taliban] for negotiations about polio vaccinations.”
Pakistan is one of only three countries in the world where polio is still prevalent. The other two nations are Afghanistan and Nigeria.
In contrast, the World Health Organization this February removed Pakistan's neighbor, India, from the list of polio endemic countries after no cases were reported there for a year. During the same time period, Pakistan recorded 180 new polio cases, the most of any country.
Polio usually infects children in unsanitary areas. The viral disease attacks the central nervous system, sometimes causing paralysis, muscular atrophy, deformation and death.