Polio in Pakistan: Hundreds of parents arrested for refusing to vaccinate children against virus

A record-breaking number of polio cases were reported in Pakistan last year

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The Independent Online

In an attempt to end Pakistan’s polio crisis, police in a northwestern province of Pakistan have arrested hundreds of parents for refusing to vaccinate their children against the disease. 

Feroz Shah, a spokesman for the Peshawar district administration said as many as 471 people have been arrested.

In the past, authorities have made scattered arrests for polio vaccination refusals. The rare spate of widespread detentions comes after Peshawar’s deputy police commissioner announced a new tough stance on parents last week.

The deputy police commissioner for Peshawar, Riaz Khan Mahsud, told the New York Times the force is dealing with between 13,000 and 16,000 refusal cases, and said they are determined to convince parents to vaccinate children against the virus.

“There is no leniency” if parents refuse, Mr Mahsud said. 

An unnamed senior government official told the newspaper that the method is working, as parents are agreeing to vaccinate their children to avoid arrest, adding others are persuaded after a “few days behind bars”.

Pakistan is one of three countries where polio is endemic, and the country last year accounted for the vast majority of reported cases.

In 2014, Pakistan’s record high of 199 new polio cases in 2000 was broken, as 306 new cases were reported.

If polio develops into its most serious form, the brain and spinal cord become inflamed. This is followed by paralysis and difficulty breathing. In some cases, when the brain stem or upper spinal cord is affected, patients can develop a bulbar palsy, where the tongue, throat and voice box are paralysed, making it impossible to speak.

Last year, the Independent Monitoring Board, which advises agencies fighting polio, slammed Pakistan’s polio programme as a disaster. The report released in October 2014 said the effort “continues to flounder hopelessly, as its virus flourishes,“

Polio is one of many treatable diseases which causes as many as one in 10 Pakistani children to die before their fifth birthday, according to children’s charity Unicef.

The new police actic comes as a senior health official revealed on Monday that Pakistan has wasted $3.7million (£2.4 million) worth of vaccines donated by Unicef because they were not stored properly.

"We have suspended the officials concerned and are conducting an inquiry," Saira Afzal Tarar, minister of state for national health services, told Reuters.

The spoiled vaccines were pentavalent, a type which combines different vaccines in one injection, and were intended to protect children against diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, hepatitis B and a bacteria that causes meningitis and pneumonia.

Faulty generators may have exposed the vaccines, which must be stored in cold temperatures, to fluctuating temperatures, according to officials.

Additional reporting by AP

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