Police in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa arrested over 400 parents and legal guardians on Monday after they refused to allow children in their care to be vaccinated against the poliovirus, according to a local government official.
“We issued arrest warrants for 471 people on Friday after they refused to cooperate with polio vaccination teams, and placed them under arrest today,” said Riaz Mehsud, the deputy commissioner of Peshawar city. “Residents of the Matani, Sanghoor, Khazana and Haryana areas on the outskirts of Peshawar were taken into custody over their refusal to vaccinate their children,” he said, adding that the arrests were made under maintenance of public order laws.
Mehsud claimed thousands of children had been denied vaccination due to their parents’ refusal and the government would no longer tolerate this. “We will require all detainees to submit an affidavit ensuring they will allow their children to be vaccinated before they are released,” he added. “We were prompted to act after we received reports that the number of polio cases recorded in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province had jumped by 96 percent in the past year,” he said.
There were 306 cases of polio reported in Pakistan last year, according to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. Over half of these originated in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan where polio vaccinations had been suspended for several years due to an ongoing security threat. The Pakistani Taliban has regularly threatened polio vaccination teams, with over 70 volunteers reportedly killed by extremists in the past year alone.
According to Mehsud, most of the people arrested had refused to vaccinate their children over security concerns, while others had claimed the medicine was not permitted in Islam. The arrests, he said, were just part of a focused campaign to ensure everyone understood that polio vaccinations were mandatory and no one would be allowed to opt out.
Dr. Imtiaz Ali Shah, the focal person for polio in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, confirmed that the government was looking at every reasonable measure to eradicate the poliovirus. “We are working on counseling parents who had refused the vaccinations, and pressuring them as a last resort through arrests to stress the importance of the vaccinations,” he said. He said the arrival of internally displaced persons in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa had exposed the threat of the virus. “We are striving to stop the spread of the disease but there’s still more work to do.”
Pakistan is one of only three countries globally, with Afghanistan and Nigeria, where the poliovirus remains endemic. The outbreak led the World Health Organization earlier this year to ask Pakistan to impose mandatory vaccinations on travelers leaving the country.