In March this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that India and ten other countries in Southeast Asia are finally polio-free following campaigns to eradicate the disease worldwide.
The battle against polio, an infectious and incurable disease which causes paralysis and even death, is apparently far from over as earlier this month, the WHO raised concerns about the resurgence of the disease in countries in Asia, Africa and Middle East, and called for a coordinated international response to curb the spread of polio.
The agency has identified Pakistan in South Asia as among the three countries including Cameroon and the Syrian Arab Republic as responsible for spreading the poliovirus beyond their border. The polio problem in Pakistan, the sixth most populous country in the world, has particularly caught global attention.
Polio infected Peshawar, a city in Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province that WHO earlier called the largest polio virus reservoir in the world, is home to 3.5 million inhabitants and a major transit hub for thousands of commuters per day.
The WHO also said that Pakistan is the only country in the world that has failed to keep track of its target to stop the spread of the crippling virus. Efforts by curb the transmission of polio have been largely affected by militants that spread conspiracy theories that claim polio vaccinations are meant to sterilize young Muslims and thus control their population.
Violence carried out against healthcare workers also exacerbated the situation as militant groups including the Taliban see political agenda behind polio vaccination efforts. The idea was fueled by the fact that the CIA has used vaccination campaign as cover for espionage efforts to find Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. Health workers who attempted to vaccinate children were kidnapped and even killed. In the last two years alone, dozens of polio workers have been killed.
While the disease is not as prevalent among the upper class Pakistanis, it may not take long before polio spreads among the affluent. Anita Zaidi, a pediatrician from Pakistan's National Immunization Technical Advisory Group, said that polio vaccination is highly refused in some rich neighborhoods in Karachi, Pakistan's financial center.
Eradication of polio in Pakistan and globally, though, remains crucial despite the challenges. "We live in a world with international trave," said Paul Offit, from the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "Until we eliminate the virus in these countries, there's always the risk it would spread to other countries."