Islamabad: Over 16,000 children below the age of five will miss their polio vaccines in North Waziristan tribal region of Pakistan due to a ban on vaccination campaigns by a powerful Taliban commander, according to a media report on Tuesday.
Hafiz Gul Bahadur, the alleged host of the Haqqani network in North Waziristan Agency, said last week that the `shura` (council) of militants had decided to ban the vaccination drive as long as US drone strikes continued in the region.
The militants claimed the vaccination campaign was a cover for American spies.
The ban will seriously impact polio eradication efforts in Pakistan, which is among three countries where polio is still prevalent.
Health officials believe the Federally Administered Tribal Areas has become the reservoir of polio because of its difficult terrain and reservations among tribesmen about the vaccination drive, The Express Tribune reported.
A three-day vaccination drive began yesterday in "high risk" areas of the tribal belt, including the Khyber, Bajaur, Mohmand and Kurram Agencies.
The target was to immunise over 777,000 children below the age of five against the crippling disease.
A health official said North Waziristan Agency will be skipped during the drive.
"North Waziristan was on the list until today. But now we have taken it off due to the threat from Hafiz Gul Bahadur," said Shahibzada Khalid, deputy director of the Expanded Programme on Immunisation for the tribal areas.
Khalid categorised North Waziristan as a "high risk" area and said if the ongoing vaccination drive was not carried out in the region, thousands of children would be at risk.
"The virus may also spread to other agencies and neighbouring districts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa," he said.
Health officials believe they might find a way out of the dilemma.
"All stakeholders, including the government, World Health Organisation, NRDF and UNICEF are trying to find a safe way to vaccinate children in North Waziristan," said Muhammad Azam, the focal person for the polio monitoring cell for the tribal areas.
The tribal regions of South Waziristan, Orakzai and upper Kurram are "low risk" areas and not on the list of regions to be covered during the ongoing campaign.
Health authorities have formed 2,700 teams to undertake the drive.
A total of 22 fresh polio cases have been confirmed in Pakistan this year, nine in Khyber Agency and one each in North and South Waziristan Agencies.
In March, the WHO warned that if the polio virus was not contained, Pakistan could face serious consequences, including travel and visa restrictions, from the world community.