Security of polio vaccinators, especially in the country’s troubled northwestern parts, is likely to figure prominently during the sixth meeting of the National Task Force on Polio Eradication today (Friday).
Being chairman of the task force, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will preside over the meeting at his office, where top federal, provincial and tribal area government bosses and representatives of partner agencies will sit down and discuss the progress of the country’s polio eradication programme and issues and challenges facing it before deciding on the corrective measures.
It will be the first meeting of the task force after reconstitution of late. The reconstitution increased the strength of the task force, which came into being in January 2011 to oversee the enforcement of the National Emergency Action Plan for Polio Eradication, to 20 by engaging among others the army chief.
Since health workers vaccinating children against polio face the growing threat of targeted violence, especially in the restive tribal areas bordering Afghanistan and the adjoining Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, the National Health Services, Regulations and Coordination Ministry is to suggest during the meeting the measures, including the raising of a dedicated force, for the safety of vaccinators.
Besides, it will also apprise participants of a plan for doing away with barriers between vaccinators and children in tribal areas, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Gaddap town of Karachi; addressing management, oversight and accountability issues in Peshawar, Hyderabad and Quetta through effective monitoring, and sustaining the gains in free-polio areas like southern Punjab, northern Sindh and Rawalpindi, to free the country from the crippling virus.
The relevant officials at the ministry firmly believe the proposed ‘Polio Eradication in Pakistan: The Way Forward’ will sit well with the participants and thus, securing their consent for early execution.
Until now this year, 23 new polio cases have been reported in the country, mostly from tribal areas due to poor or no vaccination campaigns.
According to an official, the major threat to efforts for polio eradication in Pakistan, one of the three countries only where the virus is prevalent, is the insecurity of vaccinators.
“A total of 22 health workers involved in polio vaccination have been killed in the country, mostly in central Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Karachi, since July 2012. Besides, there are also series of threats to polio workers, both written and verbal, by unidentified elements, and teams are chased in the field. Ironically, no one claims responsibility for all that,” he told this correspondent on Thursday.
In his opinion, what the country needs is to innovate and improvise with the introduction of measures like establishing a dedicated force and engaging Frontier Corps for the protection of polio teams in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, especially police have refused to offer the service for being understaffed and much occupied with fight against terrorists.
Since there is a complete ban on polio vaccination by Taliban militants in North and South Waziristan tribal agencies, the official said the ministry wanted the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa governor to proactively pursue negotiations and other means for persuade Taliban militants into resumption of polio campaigns in North and South Waziristan.
“We feel without his (governor’s) support, there will be no significant change in the situation (in FATA),” he said.
According to the official, since provision of security is of critical importance, it is highly recommended that regular security coordination committee meetings be held before every vaccination campaign. Likewise, at the district level, the District Polio Eradication Committee must convene ahead of each campaign with the district police officer participating. Also, there is a need to make the existing civil military coordination mechanism in FATA more effective to allow access to polio teams through provision of security by the armed forces.
Besides, the ministry also considers establishment of special polio points at entry and exit routes of polio-affected areas the ‘most essential step’ in the country’s fight against the crippling disease.
As said by the official, the areas of major concern are North and South Waziristan with 250,000 unvaccinated children, Bara tehsil of Khyber Agency with 105,000, Gadap town in Karachi with 68,000 and Peshawar with 769,000 such children. He said that the best way to carry out a profile of presence of poliovirus was testing the sewage samples and in 2010, the positive samples were high, while 2011 was the worst year with extremely high presence of the crippling virus, which showed a downward trend in 2012.
“The recent samples collected in the month of June-July show slight upward trends, which prove that the progress achieved so far is fragile. In this light, we must guard against complacency and continue to hold high quality campaigns,” he said.
Other suggestions to be floated by the ministry during the meeting are that the national task force meet on quarterly basis to show the political commitment at the highest government level; the provincial task force meet at regular intervals; full-time provincial focal persons be appointed to ensure strong oversight of the polio campaign; the control rooms at the offices of the provincial chief ministers or chief secretaries be made functional; the role of the deputy commissioners, the backbone of the polio eradication strategy, be reemphasized; the district polio eradication committees and union council polio eradication committees be made functional. Also, a special cell should be created exclusively to ensure polio eradication strategy for Peshawar and Karachi with a senior officer as in charge.
When contacted, National Health Services, Regulations and Coordination Secretary Imtiaz Inayat Elahi said during the Friday meeting, he along with the minister would shed light on the implementation of the decisions made during the task force’s last meeting, the current situation of the country’s fight against polio, and progress of the National Emergency Action Plan for Polio Eradication.
“We will also make an impassioned appeal to the chief ministers and the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa governor to take the fullest advantage of the low transmission season between December 2013 and April next year to conduct high-quality polio vaccination campaigns and stamp out the virus,” he said. The secretary said that the country must capitalise on the low transmission polio season as ‘it’s now or never for us.’