Pakistan launched a nationwide polio vaccination drive this week to try to reach 38.7 million children and eradicate the paralyzing and potentially deadly virus in one of the last countries where it is endemic.
Nearly 260,000 volunteers and workers fanned out across Pakistan in an effort to vaccinate every child below the age of five in a week-long campaign, Pakistan’s national coordinator on polio, Mohammad Safdar, said.
“We’re really very close to eradicating the disease,” Safdar told Reuters, appealing to the people to cooperate with the door-to-door effort.
Pakistan is one of only three countries in the world, along with Afghanistan and Nigeria, that suffers from endemic polio, a childhood virus that can cause paralysis or death.
In 2018, Pakistan has had just one polio case, reported last month, Safdar said. The number of cases has steadily declined since 2014 when 306 were reported. Last year, there were only eight cases, he said.
Efforts to eradicate the disease have been undermined by opposition from the Taliban and other Islamist militants, who say immunization is a foreign ploy to sterilise Muslim children or a cover for Western spies.
In January, gunmen killed a mother-and-daughter vaccination team working in the southwestern province of Baluchistan, where the year’s only case so far was later reporter.
Three years earlier, 15 people were killed in a bombing by the Pakistani Taliban outside a polio vaccination center in Baluchistan.
Polio teams working on Monday were undeterred.
“Yes we feel threatened, but our work is like this,” said Bilquis Omar, who has served on a mobile vaccination team for the past six years in the southern port metropolis of Karachi.
“We are working for the children,” she said.
Aziz Memon, who heads the Rotary Club’s PolioPlus program that funds many of the immunization teams, said this year the drive was also making a renewed effort to reach migrants who come back and forth from Afghanistan.
“Mission number one is to get to zero cases and eradicate polio,” Memon said.
A country must have no cases for three consecutive years in order to be considered to have eradicated polio by the World Health Organization.
Pakistan has to contend with extra suspicion of immunization drives because of the 2011 U.S. special forces raid inside the country that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, architect of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States in 2001.
A Pakistani doctor was accused of using a fake vaccination campaign to collect DNA samples that the CIA was believed to have been using to verify bin Laden’s identity. The doctor remains jailed in Pakistan, convicted of waging war against state. VOA
Pakistan has intensified efforts to keep the U.S.-led dialogue with the Afghan Taliban on track, but official sources in Islamabad maintain the responsibility for the “success or failure” of the fledgling peace process rests “exclusively” with the two negotiating sides.
The caution comes as U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, landed in the Pakistani capital Thursday amid expectations a direct meeting could take place between his delegation and Taliban negotiators during his stay in the country.
Prior to his departure Wednesday from Kabul, Khalilzad told reporters that talks with the Taliban will “happen very soon. That’s what we’re working toward.” He did not elaborate further.
Meanwhile, in a significant move, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani telephoned Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on Thursday and discussed the efforts being made for bringing peace to Afghanistan.
Khan’s office said in a statement that Ghani expressed his gratitude for Pakistan’s “sincere facilitation” for Afghan peace and reconciliation.
It said the prime minister “assured President Ghani that Pakistan was making sincere efforts for a negotiated settlement of the conflict in Afghanistan through an inclusive peace process, as part of shared responsibility.”
Official sources in Islamabad expected “important developments” over the next two days but they would not share further details. “There is no room for missed opportunities” under the circumstances, they insisted.
Pakistani officials maintain in background interviews with VOA that the U.S.-Taliban talks are being facilitated in the hope that they would ultimately lead to an intra-Afghan dialogue for political settlement of the conflict in Afghanistan. All sides in the peace process will share “the credit and benefits of a success,” they insisted.
“Similarly, given sincere desire and efforts of everyone, no one should be exclusively blamed if the main interlocutors fail to agree due to own lack of flexibility that is very much required from both the U.S. and the Taliban at this stage,” a senior official privy to the Pakistani peace diplomacy told VOA.
Khalilzad arrived in Pakistan from Afghanistan where he briefed Ghani and other top officials of Afghan government on the U.S.-led peace initiative.
The Taliban has held several meetings with Khalilzad’s team in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates but the insurgents have persistently refused to engage directly with the sitting administration in Kabul. Their refusal is blamed for a lack of progress in negotiations that started last summer, after American diplomats gave in to a major Taliban demand and met them directly.
Khalilzad, however, made it clear on Wednesday the insurgent group would have to engage with the Afghan government for the process to move forward.
“The road to peace will require the Taliban to sit with the Afghan government. There is a consensus among all the regional partners on this point,” the Afghan-born U.S. special envoy told reporters in Kabul.
He went on to warn that if the Taliban chose to fight over peace talks, the United States would support the Afghan government.
The Taliban threatened earlier in the week to pull out of all negotiations if the United States backed away from discussing the key insurgent demand for a troop withdrawal plan and pressured the insurgents into speaking to the Afghan government.
Diplomats privy to the peace process support the U.S. effort for the Taliban to speak directly to the current administration in Kabul to resolve internal Afghan matters. They see the Ghani-led National Unity government as a “legitimate” entity possessing official representation at the United Nations and maintaining diplomatic missions in world capitals.
The last substantial talks between Khalilzad and Taliban officials took place in Abu Dhabi about a month ago and Pakistan took credit for arranging it and bringing an authoritative team of insurgent negotiators to the table.
Officials in Islamabad say that Pakistan’s “biggest contribution” has been that it has “broken the political stalemate that was there in Afghanistan for several years.”
Prime Minister Khan has repeatedly stated that finding a political settlement to the conflict in Afghanistan is a top foreign policy priority for his government. While speaking to Khan on Thursday, Ghani invited him to visit Kabul at his earliest convenience and the Pakistani leader reciprocated by inviting the Afghan president to visit Islamabad.
Pakistan has long been accused of sheltering Taliban leaders and covertly helping them orchestrate insurgent attacks, charges Islamabad rejects.
U.S. officials, however, acknowledge the “positive role” Pakistan has played in the current Afghan peace effort. The thaw in traditionally mistrusted bilateral ties was visible earlier this month when U.S. President Donald Trump announced he intended to maintain a “great relationship” with Pakistan.
“So, I look forward to meeting with the new leadership in Pakistan. We will be doing that in the not too distant future,” said Trump.
Islamabad swiftly welcomed the remarks, which raised official expectations in Pakistan for an official invitation to Prime Minister Khan to visit Washington, though the Trump administration has so far given no such indication. (VOA)