ISLAMABAD - The World Health Organisation has declared Peshawar as the world's ‘largest reservoir’ of endemic polio virus, and called for urgent action to boost immunisation.

“With more than 90 percent of the current polio cases in Pakistan genetically linked to Peshawar, the city is now the largest reservoir of endemic polio virus in the world,” the UN public health arm observed in a statement released on Friday.

Polio was also endemic in Afghanistan and Nigeria, but of the three countries only Pakistan saw a rise in cases from 2012 to 2013, it said.

According to the latest genomic sequencing results of Regional Reference Laboratory for Polio Virus, about 83 out of 91 polio cases in 2013 in Pakistan are genetically linked to strains of the virus circulating in Peshawar.

The global health body said “twelve out of a total of 13 cases reported in 2013 from Afghanistan were also directly linked to Peshawar”.

“For the last four years, samples of sewage water from throughout the country are periodically tested for presence of polio virus. Eighty-six samples of sewage water were collected from different locations in Peshawar since the past four years, and 72 of these samples had shown the presence of the highly contagious and paralytic wild polio virus strain,” the statement detailed.

During the last six months, every single sample taken from Peshawar's sewage system tested positive for a highly contagious wild polio virus strain, the WHO said.

Peshawar has reported 45 polio cases during the last five years, and four cases were reported during the previous year.

The health organisation further said, “A major outbreak of polio in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the Afghan border, which has left 65 children paralysed, is being ‘sustained’ by Peshawar. As much of the population of the area moves through Peshawar, the city acts as an amplifier of the virus.”

The WHO stated the prevailing security situation in Peshawar had seriously affected the quality of polio campaigns in the city and was resulting in inadequate coverage of children against the virus. The existing state of polio eradication efforts in Peshawar by the provincial government should be improved in order to interrupt polio virus transmission, it stressed.

The WHO recommended that “repeated, high quality vaccination campaigns - accompanied by strong monitoring - be held in Peshawar to stop this transmission and protect children from polio”.

Pakistan is the only polio-endemic country in the world where polio cases rose from 2012 to 2013. Out of a total of 91 cases last year, seven were reported from Punjab, nine from Sindh, 10 from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and 65 from FATA.

Elias Durry, WHO's emergency coordinator for polio eradication in Pakistan, told a foreign news agency the virus was concentrated in a few areas that were too dangerous for health workers to visit. For eradication to succeed, he said, security must be improved in these areas.

Stunned over WHO revelations, cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, who had pledged to personally spearhead anti-polio efforts, asked the chief minister and health minister to commence a crash course against polio virus. Khan directed the KPK chief minister and health minister to undertake on an emergency basis a drive to stamp out all the nine diseases on the government’s expanded immunisation programme.

The chief minister told Khan that according to the international health standards, it was important that the quality of routine immunisation was improved to help children strive against the nine diseases, including polio. 

Imran Khan said, “We cannot continue to play with the lives of our future generations when prevention of childhood diseases is readily available. The neglect of successive governments towards immunisation of children against polio was criminal. And today this has endangered our children's welfare and Pakistan's international standing.”

“The Khyber Pukhtunkhwa government must act on an emergency basis to immunise all children against polio. It must communicate to parents that immunisation could make the difference between a healthy child and a crippled one. The battle must be fought on all fronts to make Pakistan free of all preventable diseases, including polio. We cannot afford failure," Khan concluded.

Efforts to stamp out the disease have been hampered by opposition from militant groups, who see vaccination campaigns as a cover for espionage, as well as long-running rumours about the drops causing infertility.