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Pakistan's refugee crisis fuels danger of spreading polio virus

By Shelby Lin Erdman and Aliza Kassim, CNN
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 0347 GMT (1147 HKT)
A Pakistani health worker gives a dose of polio vaccine to a child in Bannu on June 25. The World Health Organization has launched a campaign to stop the spread of the illness as hundreds of thousands of people flee North Waziristan. A Pakistani health worker gives a dose of polio vaccine to a child in Bannu on June 25. The World Health Organization has launched a campaign to stop the spread of the illness as hundreds of thousands of people flee North Waziristan.
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Children being given polio vaccines
Pakistani Army launches offensive
Food in short supply
Police and troops keep order
Angry scenes as people wait for aid
Queuing for food
For some, the wait was too long
Government is registering those fleeing
A place of refuge
Women, children far from home
Delivering aid
Villagers flee North Waziristan
Rations being shared
Passing government checkpoints
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • WHO warns Pakistan's growing refugee population at risk of polio
  • The number of displaced could reach 600,000 in the northwest
  • North Waziristan, where the army is targeting militants, has the most cases
  • Polio is highly infectious and can't be cured, but is preventable with a vaccine

(CNN) -- The growing refugee crisis in northwestern Pakistan is fueling the danger of spreading the polio virus among the displaced population, the World Health Organization warned on Wednesday.

More than 450,000 Pakistanis have fled their homes in the past two weeks as the military tries to root out militants in the North Waziristan region near the border with Afghanistan.

But "this number could reach 600,000 as the military operation continues," federal minister for states and frontier regions, retired Lt. Gen. Abdul Qadri Baloch, said during a news conference on Pakistan State TV Wednesday.

That could mean an even bigger danger of spreading the disease as the number of refugees increases.

Map: Civilians flee North Waziristan  Map: Civilians flee North Waziristan
Map: Civilians flee North WaziristanMap: Civilians flee North Waziristan
Pakistan takes on Taliban militants
Health workers under attack in Pakistan

Rising polio risk

Polio rates are higher than average in North Waziristan due to a ban on anti-polio campaigns imposed by the Pakistani Taliban two years ago in response to U.S. drone strikes.

In June 2012, Taliban commander Hafiz Gul Bahadur released a statement that said vaccines "would be banned in North Waziristan until the drones strikes are stopped."

He added that drone strikes "are worse than polio."

Polio is a highly infectious viral disease that primarily affects young children. It can lead to paralysis and death. The virus is easily preventable through immunization, but there's no cure once it is contracted.

"The highest number of polio cases have been witnessed in North Waziristan," Pakistan WHO spokesperson Dr. Nima Saeed told reporters in Islamabad. "The mass migration of people from the vulnerable area has increased the risk of the polio virus spreading further."

Mass vaccination

The WHO is working to contain the threat by vaccinating people along routes out of North Waziristan.

Many are receiving the dose at government-run centers set up to register displaced people.

As of Wednesday, the U.N. said around 146,000 people had been vaccinated.

The facilities in the camp aren't yet up to the standard that we'd like them to be.
Timo Pakkala, the U.N's Humanitarian Coordinator for Pakistan

Hundreds of thousands of people have fled North Waziristan since the launch of a government offensive on June 15 against the Pakistani Taliban in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.

The United Nations says most of the people who have fled the region have sought shelter with relatives and in rented accommodation in the town of Bannu, in Bannu district.

One government-run camp has been set up with enough room for 200,000 people, but so far only around 20 families have moved there.

"The facilities in the camp aren't yet up to the standard that we'd like them to be. Also, for cultural reasons people don't want to live in tents," said Timo Pakkala, the U.N's Humanitarian Coordinator for Pakistan.

"The people who come from North Waziristan are very conservative, very traditional. There are restrictions on men and women staying together. They have families; they want to stay together," he said.

READ: 450,000 displaced as Pakistan attacks militants

CNN's Hilary Whiteman contributed to this report.

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