By Hamid Khan Wazir
An alarming increase has been noticed in diphtheria cases in the already troubled South and North Waziristan agencies. Dozens of children have died of the highly contagious disease with no steps as yet being taken by the authorities to control the malady.
Around 30 children have died so far, while hundreds of others have been infected because of a severe dearth of medicines.
Doctors say that the disease has spread from children living in IDPs camps in the district because they were left unvaccinated as most of the tribal areas don’t have vaccinations.
The disease is rapidly spreading to adjoining districts, including Tank, Dera Ismail Khan, and Bannu, where dozens of children have been hospitalised.
Health experts warn that the new infections could turn into an epidemic, but even so, the government doesn’t seem bothered to deploy preventive measures.
Some patients have been shifted to areas nearby which have better medical facilities, such as Tank, Dera Ismail Khan, Bannu, and Peshawar.
However, most of the infected children belong to poor families who cannot afford the treatment, are fighting for their lives at home.
Talking to Pakistan Today, a child specialist Dr Samillah Dawar said that diphtheria is caused by bacteria and can be prevented by routine childhood vaccination.
Before the development of treatments and vaccines, diphtheria was widespread and mostly affected children under the age of 18. However, he said that it could even infect adults if it turned into an epidemic.
He said that in most cases are the infection is usually spread by contact with people breathing out droplets, but also by skin contact.
Treatments entail antitoxins and antibiotics while the patient is isolated and monitored in intensive care.
However, Dr Samillah said that the best outcomes could only occur with swift diagnosis and proper and prompt treatment.
He said that the main reason for this spread of diphtheria is that there has been no routine immunisation of children in Waziristan for many years due to the precarious security situation. According to him, there is a need for awareness among the people regarding the disease and vaccination against it.
People living in the tribal region say they fear that the disease could further multiply because of people going back to their hometowns where children have not been vaccinated against the disease.
Dr Noor Gul, a senior doctor, said that this is an easily preventable and treatable disease, though awareness about vaccination is of utmost importance.
He said that children could be prevented from the disease through vaccination and quarantine (isolation of those infected).
According to a senior official of the Expanded Programme on Immunization (EPI), five children from South Waziristan and seven from North Waziristan have died of diphtheria.
He said that they are well-aware of the situation and steps are being taken to control the quickly worsening situation.
However, he accepted that they are also facing multiple challenges, mainly because of the precarious security situation and the frequent shifting of families from the tribal region to other areas.
An official working with an NGO in South Waziristan told Pakistan Today on condition of anonymity that there is no lack of vaccination. Instead, the locals responsible for vaccinating the children are not doing their duty justly.
He said that they are being paid heavily, but due to the non-existence of an effective inspection mechanism, most of the children are left unvaccinated.