Deadly diptheria outbreak stalks tribal areas

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Bannu: After leaving 23 children dead over the past month, a life threatening diphtheria outbreak is haunting children in parts of FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), doctors and patients’ relatives say.

Dr. Ikhtiar, deputy director Extension Programme Immunization (EPI) FATA, said his directorate has expedited the process of vaccinating children in North and South Waziristan tribal regions.

“The children could not be vaccinated earlier because of deteriorated law and order in the two tribal regions,” Dr. Ikhtiar told News Lens. Health officials were spurred into action to start vaccination drive of children soon after the spread of the disease, he added.

He confirmed 10 children had died in North Waziristan and five in South Waziristan due to the disease. At that time there was a dearth of direly needed medicines.

“Officially, we have recorded the deaths of 15 children of the disease, while there are unofficial reports of casualties in the rest of the districts of KP,” he added.

A total of three rounds of vaccination are needed to completely control the viral disease, he said. “The first round of vaccination has been completed and the second will be started from the second week of next month,” he remarked.

Diphtheria has already left two dozen children dead in Bannu, a gateway to North Waziristan tribal region, said Dr. Iqbal, ENT specialist. He warned that steps should be taken to control the contagious virus as children affected by the disease are still coming to hospital.

Shahid Khattak, World Health Organisation provincial communication officer in KP, said medicines and vaccines had already dispatched to every hospital.

“All the hospitals in the province now have vaccine in abundance to treat diphtheria patients,” he told News Lens.

Special awareness campaigns have been launched to control the disease in the province and the tribal region.

Dr. Iqbal Mehsud, another ENT specialist in Dera Ismail Khan, a district close to South Waziristan tribal region, said he has treated two diphtheria patients.

He said that the bacteria often attack one’s nose and throat and the disease releases dangerous toxins, which can damage heart, brain and kidneys.

He said that the first move to control the disease is an anti-toxin injection, which counteracts the toxin produced by the bacteria.

But Dr. Ikhtiar said medicines had been dispatched already on an emergency basis to all the hospitals of FATA and KP.

In 2012, as per the projections estimated by FATA’s Planning and Development (P&D) department, the total population has grown to 4.301 million.

A survey by FATA Development Indicators Household 2013-14’, shows that the tribal region has one of the poorest regions in the country.

The survey was conducted by the FATA secretariat in collaboration with Pakistan Institute of Development Economics Islamabad, and the Institute of Management Sciences, Peshawar.
It states the literacy rate in Fata 33.3 per cent— far less than the national average of 58 per cent (2013-14) while the adult literacy rate in the region is 28 per cent against the national average of 75 per cent.

Similarly, the survey painted a bleak picture of health indicators in FATA. The maternal mortality ratio for FATA stood at 395 per 100,000 persons compared to 275 per 100,000 persons for KP. The total fertility rate for FATA is 5 as against 3.8 in Pakistan.

The share of fully immunized children under 12 to 23 months is 33.9 per cent against Pakistan’s 76 per cent.

The doctors put the blame on weak immunization drive at a time when most of the children in Pakistani tribal region were left unimmunized before mass exodus of tribal families due to anti-militants offensive by the military.

Dr. Mehsud said that the case of Dr. Shakil Afridi dealt a severe blow to vaccination and immunization campaigns.

Dr Mehsud said that now they have the medicines but initially children’s relatives complain that they cannot afford the injections.

He said that one injection costs Rs. 60,000 which is beyond the access of poor people.
A 10 year old child from South Waziristan, Mukhtiaru Din, a diphtheria patient, has been struggling for life in a hospital in Peshawar.

His uncle said Din’s father is too poor to afford his treatment.

“The father of the patient is a private security guard in Karachi, Sindh province, whose monthly salary is Rs. 10,000 ($100),” the patient’s uncle told News Lens.

However, Dr. Ikhtiar said that medicines have been dispatched to the hospitals of affected areas in KP. But another doctor who wished to go unnamed because he is not authorized to speak to media said the disease continues to spread to other tribal region where repatriation of families is under way because children going back to their hometowns are not vaccinated yet.

Maulana Jamalud Din, Member National Assembly (MNA) from the tribal region, rued that tribal people witnessed mayhem and bloodshed because of militancy and now they are being haunted by natural disease but the government is doing nothing to control the situation.
“The tribal children and people need extra medical care and facilities because they have offered untold sacrifices during the war on terror,” the lawmaker told News Lens.

The government should employ all resources to provide people of the tribal belt with new hospitals equipped with state-of-the-art facilities, he said.

Muhammad Hamid, a tribal elder from North Waziristan, said he fears the disease would further multiply because families are going back to their hometowns and most of the children are not vaccinated against the disease.

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