A Pakistani health worker gives a polio vaccine to a child in Peshawar, Pakistan. Image Credit: AP

Peshawar, Pakistan: Determined to curb Pakistan’s polio crisis, police officials in the northwestern province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa said they had issued hundreds of arrest warrants for parents refusing to vaccinate their children.

“We had 13,000 to 16,000 refusal cases,” the deputy police commissioner for Peshawar, Riaz Khan Mahsud, said in an interview. “There is total determination on our part. We shall convince parents of the good of vaccinating their children, but if they refuse, we shall detain them. There is no leniency.”

The police in other districts of the province also reported issuing warrants, although no official total was released.

“The number keeps fluctuating,” a senior government official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to brief the media. “We are applying different laws. You have to resort to coercive measures when persuasion fails.”

The official added: “The application of laws is working. Some parents readily agree to vaccinate children to avoid detention. For others it takes a few days behind bars to see reason. We take an affidavit from them and let them go if they bring kids for vaccination.”

Last year, 306 new polio cases were reported in Pakistan, breaking the country’s record high of 199 new cases in 2000.

“This was due to complacency and a very bad security situation,” said Dr Imtiaz Ali Shah, head of the government’s polio monitoring group in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

Shah said the outbreak was particularly bad in two northwestern tribal regions, North and South Waziristan, remote areas that have been havens for militants from Al Qaida and the Taliban and their allies, making them mostly inaccessible to vaccination teams. Then, in June, the military began an offensive in North Waziristan to root out the militants, sending hundreds of thousands of refugees into the rest of Pakistan and across the border into Afghanistan.

The refugees “took the virus with them everywhere they went - in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and Sindh,” Shah added. “There was a ping-pong, cases popping up here, cases popping up there.”

Despite this, Shah said the military operation had given officials the best chance in years for polio teams to make progress in the tribal areas.

So far there has been a total of 13 new cases in all of Pakistan this year, 11 of them from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa or the tribal regions.

“We have better access and better monitoring now,” Shah said. “The quality of the campaign has improved. I am confident the cases will come down to less than 100 this year.”