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Pakistani polio strain threatens global campaign

Tuesday - 2/18/2014, 3:50am  ET

In this Feb. 2, 2014 photo, a Pakistani health worker vaccinates a child against polio, in Peshawar, Pakistan. Pakistan's beleaguered battle to eradicate polio is threatening a global, multi-billion dollar campaign to wipe out the disease worldwide. Because of Pakistan, the virus is spreading to countries that were previously polio-free, U.N. officials say. (AP Photo/Mohammad Sajjad)

KATHY GANNON
Associated Press

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) -- Just a few weeks ago, 11-month-old Shaista was pulling herself up, giggling as she took her first wobbly steps with the helping hand of her teenage mother.

Then the polio virus struck and Shaista was no longer able to stand, her legs buckling beneath her weight. Today, her mother cries a lot and wonders what will become of her daughter in Pakistan's male-dominated society, where a woman's value is often measured by the quality of her husband.

"It is not a hardship just for the child, but for the whole family," said the child's 18-year-old mother, Samia Gul. "It is very difficult for a poor family like us. She will be dependent on us for the rest of her life."

Shaista is one of five new polio cases to surface in Pakistan in just the first month of this year. Last year, Pakistan recorded 92 new cases, beating Nigeria and Afghanistan -- the only other polio-endemic countries -- by almost 2 to 1, the World Health Organization said.

Pakistan's beleaguered battle to eradicate polio is threatening a global, multi-billion-dollar campaign to wipe out the disease worldwide. Because of Pakistan, the virus is spreading to countries that were previously polio-free, U.N officials say.

"The largest polio virus reservoir of the world," is in Peshawar, in northwestern Pakistan near the border with Afghanistan, according to WHO.

Shaista and her parents share a two-room mud house with a couple of goats, a half-dozen squawking chickens and 10 other relatives in Pakistan's western Khyber Pukhtunkhwa, or KPK, province, where Islamic militants often gun down health workers distributing vaccines and send suicide bombers to blow up police vehicles that protect them.

The latest casualty was a police constable killed Tuesday protecting a team of vaccination workers in northwest Pakistan. During a two-day vaccination campaign in Peshawar earlier this month, 5,000 police were deployed to protect health workers, most of whom earn barely $2 a day.

Fresh cases of polio -- traced through genetic sequencing to the Pakistani strain of the disease -- are showing up in countries that were previously polio-free, including Syria and Egypt, as well as in the Gaza Strip, said Ban Khalid Al-Dhayi, the spokeswoman for UNICEF in Pakistan. UNICEF is tasked with persuading a reluctant tribal population that lives along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan -- perhaps one of the most dangerous places on the planet -- to vaccinate their children.

"A lot of countries that spent so much money and resources eradicating polio are worried," Al-Dhayi said in an interview.

Pakistan's neighbors are particularly vulnerable.

The same genetic sequencing found that 12 of the last 13 new polio cases in Afghanistan originated in Pakistan. Just last week, a 3-year-old was diagnosed with polio in the Afghan capital of Kabul, the first case since 2001.

Neighboring India, with a population of 1.2 billion, has been polio-free for three years. Fearful that Pakistan could wipe out that achievement, India is demanding that Pakistani visitors provide proof of vaccination.

It wasn't so long ago -- 1988 -- that more than 350,000 people, most of them children under 5, were afflicted by polio in 125 countries where the disease was endemic. Today the disease is endemic in only three.

Last year, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a multi-billion-dollar charity that funds polio vaccinations, vowed to wipe out the crippling disease by 2018.

Underlining the danger that Pakistan poses to achieving that goal, Al-Dhayi said there are 350,000 Pakistani children in just one small area of the country who have not been vaccinated -- and it takes only one child left unvaccinated to reverse global gains against the disease.

The area -- North and South Waziristan -- is too dangerous for health workers to venture. Islamic militants, many with ties to al-Qaida, banned polio vaccinations there in 2012 to press their demand that the United States end its use of drones to target their hideouts.

Militants have also created suspicion among ultraconservative parents in Pakistan's deeply religious northwest, saying the polio vaccine will make their children impotent. The vaccine, they claim, is a ploy by the West to limit the world's Muslim population.

But health workers and militants alike agree the biggest setback was the highly publicized use of a Pakistani doctor and a vaccination ruse to ferret out al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden in May 2011. Dr. Shakil Afridi is in jail in Pakistan for his role in the CIA operation that uncovered bin Laden's hideout in the northwestern city of Abbottabad, 60 miles (100 kilometers) from the capital, Islamabad.

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