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- Monday, July 23, 2012 - From Print Edition


It was 2008 and I found myself like many other students who were going to the UK for their higher education, in the queue at the International Organization for Migrations’ TB test lab. TB is a disease which is specially prevalent in South Asia and it is not possible for Pakistani students to study in the UK without first obtaining a certificate that they are free from TB.


The process in a way is insulting and degrading that because we have not been able to provide adequate healthcare we have to undergo this process to ensure that we do not infect people in other countries.


Polio is an infectious disease which typically affects young children. The virus is transmitted through contaminated water and food. It multiplies in the intestine to invade the nervous system and leads to paralysis.


The Polio eradication programme started in 1978. in 1988, the World Health Organization (WHO), together with Rotary International, Unicef, and the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention passed the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, with the goal of eradicating polio by the year 2000.


The initiative raised $120 million toward immunizing all of the world’s children against the disease.


It is now 2012, and Pakistan is one of three countries in the world, the other being Afghanistan and Nigeria, that are on the World Health Organization’s list of countries where the disease is endemic.


The annual cases of polio in Pakistan, which were estimated to be more than 20,000 cases a year in early 1990’s, decreased to around 30 cases in 2005. It is hard to believe today but just a few years ago Pakistan was on the verge of polio eradication. Unfortunately, the number of cases increased to a 15 year record high of 198 in 2011-2012. It is an increase of nearly 40% as compared to 2010.


During the first half of the year the transmission was heavily concentrated to poor performing transmission zones in Baluchistan, Fata, and Karachi, but during the high transmission season the virus spread more widely out of these zones, including into areas that had been polio-free.


The key challenges to polio eradication are limited oversight and accountability at the district and union council levels; access problems due to insecurity particularly in KPK and FATA; failure to identify and focus on underserved population and mobile groups; operational and planning challenges to deliver vaccination door-to-door to more than 38 million children several times a year and achieving high coverage at UC level; and overall campaign fatigue in public domain, rumors and negative perception of oral polio vaccine in some communities.


According to a study by Dr Zulfiqar A Bhutta close to 450,000 children under five die annually in Pakistan — a rate only second to Afghanistan in the region.


One-third of these deaths, that is 150,000 are due to vaccine preventable disorders. At least close to 90,000 child deaths can be prevented every year by universal immunization.


Our neighbor India has now gone a full year without any new cases of polio. The World Health Organization said on March 30 that Pakistan had 50% of all reported polio cases in the world during the first quarter of 2012 - despite immunization efforts that have reduced the number of polio cases from 24 to 15 since the same period in 2011.


In such a scenario where the polio rate is increasing and the World Health Organization (WHO) staff members are working hard for the eradication of such a dangerous disease. Yet, the WHO workers were attacked in Karachi and one international consultant was injured. The WHO employees survived in this incident. Such incidents highlight the incredible bravery of more than 200,000 mainly Pakistani volunteers who run every vaccination campaign. WHO, Unicef, and all polio partners remain committed to supporting the Government of Pakistan and the people of Pakistan in their efforts to eradicate polio.


Dr Bruce Aylward, Assistant Director-General of Polio, Emergencies and Country Collaboration, WHO, said that the global community had been expressing its anxiety over the widespread prevalence of the virus in Pakistan. The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned Pakistan that if the polio virus was not contained, it could face serious consequences such as travel and visa restrictions and sanctions imposed by countries across the world.


The concerns of the international community are certainly not unfounded. The statistics over the past three years are baffling.


On the other hand the Taliban and warlord Hafiz Gul Bahadur, whose followers are fighting Western troops in Afghanistan, have banned polio vaccination in the northwestern tribal region of Waziristan to protest against US drone attacks. They have condemned the immunization campaign. According to the Director of Health Services in the tribal belt, ‘at least 160,000 children in North Waziristan and 80,000 in South Waziristan would be affected if polio drops are not administered’.


At the official level, the Senate Standing Committee on Inter Provincial Coordination (IPC), has also warned that the international community has decided to place strict travel restrictions on Pakistanis traveling abroad. To achieve full oversight, ownership and accountability for the polio programme the government must take immediate steps at each administrative level.


Particularly in the high risk areas. Polio is a serious issue, we need to take ownership of the issue and fix it immediately or face dire consequences.


The day may not be far when Pakistani students will need to take Polio Immunization certifications with them for study abroad too.


(The writer is Youth Ambassador of Geo and Jang Group. Email: [email protected] Facebook: Twitter: @amNAWAZISH)