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Taliban Denies Polio Vaccine To 300,000 Children

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Taliban militants in Pakistan's northern Swat Valley region are preventing UN officials from administering the Polio vaccine to hundreds of thousands of children with the claim that it is an anti-Muslim sterilization plot, the Telegraph reports. Radical Taliban clerics have taken to the radio and are even using megaphones to spread awareness of the "US tool to cut the population of the Muslims."

The World Health Organization's (WHO) Polio Team was originally promised access to the area as part of an earlier peace agreement -- an agreement that has apparently been broken. The WHO is now declaring the situation -- which endangers up to 300,000 children -- a medical emergency. From the Telegraph:

Yesterday government officials convened another meeting in Swat [in] an attempt to break the impasse, according to Dr Abdul Jabbar, the WHO's polio team leader in North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

Swat had recorded 4 cases of polio last year of the total 53 recorded by NWFP and the tribal areas. Pakistan had 118 cases in 2009.

The WHO recorded 39 cases of polio in Pakistan in 2006, up from 28 in 2005. The disease is concentrated in NWFP where 60% of the refusals were attributed to "religious reasons".

Sharia law was imposed on the Swat Valley region last month as part of an agreement with the Pakistani government, much to the chagrin of many human rights and health organizations, who warn of the traditional Islamic legal structure's sometimes brutal and repressive practices. According to AsiaNews, part of the new system dictates that NGOs be expelled from the region and that many imprisoned hard-line Taliban be released, guaranteeing that the Polio vaccine will not reach the local inhabitants:

Since Sharia came into effect on 16 February lawyers have lost their job, NGOs have not been allowed to operate, polio vaccination has been banned, Taliban in custody have been released, and demands that Islamic law be implemented in the other districts of the province have made. The agreement signed by the government of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the Tahrik-e-Nifaz Shariat Muhammadi (TNSM) movement in a bid to end years of war and violence is bearing fruit. Under Sharia civil liberties and personal freedoms are being curtailed and what was once a famous destination for national and international tourism is being progressively "talibanised".

The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) on Sunday also ordered all non-governmental organisations to immediately leave Swat. For the Islamist organisation "NGO is another name for 'vulgarity and obscenity'," because they hire women who work with men, in the field and in offices. "That is totally unislamic and unacceptable," TTP spokesman Muslim Khan said.

The timing of the NGO expulsion is especially inopportune for Polio vaccinations because it is in the first three months of the year that transmission is lowest. According to the WHO Polio Team's Dr. Nima Abid in a press release:

"Polio vaccination is effective in the first three months of the year when virus transmission is lowest and so there is no interference with the vaccine virus."

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