The federal government is in the process of finalising a draft bill that envisages the introduction of compulsory vaccination in a bid to halt the incidence of childhood diseases and to reduce the burden of vaccine-preventable diseases like polio. Offenders of the law will be punishable with both fine as well as imprisonment.
Special Assistant to the Prime Minister and Prime Minister’s Focal Person on Polio Eradication Shahnaz Wazir Ali shared this piece of information with the media while addressing a press conference that coincided with the launching of the March 2012 polio immunisation campaign here Monday.
She was flanked by MNAs Dr. Tariq Fazal Chaudhary, Akhonzada Chiton, Humayun Saifullah Khan, Shakeel Awan, Asiya Nasir, Parvez Khan, Fauzia Ijaz Khan and Senator Saeeda Iqbal.
Titled ‘Compulsory Immunisation Bill 2012,’ the legislation is expected to improve the country’s immunisation status as a key strategy to affecting a decline in the incidence of childhood diseases. According to the draft bill, parents who obstruct access to or refuse immunisation to an eligible child will be punishable with fine and imprisonment because the act would tantamount to infringement of a child’s right and harming of public interest, given that an un-immunised child not only stands threatened himself but also imperils the health status of other children.
The draft bill also proposes action (fine and imprisonment) against elements indulging in rumour-mongering and dissemination of unscientific and non-technical information about vaccines-be it orally or in written form. Moreover, the issuance of Form B and admission to a school will be made conditional to a child’s immunisation status. The bill also empowers vaccinators to declare any point as a vaccination centre and use it for immunisation purposes.
“Now that the 18th Amendment has taken effect, the provinces too should come up with legislation,” Shahnaz advised. The idea regarding introduction of legislation to punish those who hamper the immunisation process in any way was also floated by Humayun Saifullah from Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa. “Whosoever does not give anti-polio vaccine to his own child has, in a way, held all other children hostage to the disease. This cannot be tolerated. Parents who do not get their children vaccinated should be put behind bars for 3 to 6 months,” he proposed.
Parvez Khan, also from KPK, suggested that the Prime Minister’s Polio Monitoring and Coordination Cell, which is restricted to the central government, should have provincial representation as well. “The provinces must also be given a role to play within the Cell. Alternatively, similar cells should be created at the provincial level because unless the provinces do not participate in the process, polio cannot be eradicated,” he pointed out. He also urged the government to make logistic arrangements for district health officers.
Akhonzada Chiton dismissed the plea that the rise in polio cases has come about as a result of floods and lack of access to areas beset with security issues. “No challenge-be it floods, drone attacks, or terrorism-cannot stop parents from protecting their children from a disease that leads to lifelong disability,” he was of the view. He attributed the rising incidence of polio to a certain segment that wants Balochistan and Fata to remain under-developed. “This segment is against education, vaccination, and enlightenment,” he regretted.
Saeeda Iqbal called for greater coordination between the districts and provinces, and improvement in monitoring. Asiya Nasir blamed lack of public awareness and negative propaganda against anti-polio vaccine for last year’s massive increase in the number of polio cases in Balochistan. She said, the situation is further compounded by lack of communication facilities in far-flung areas, problems in maintenance of the cold chain to preserve vaccine efficacy, and poor sanitation and waste disposal. “If we are able to eradicate polio from the worst-affected areas of Pakistan, we will succeed in eradicating it from the whole world,” she said.
Tariq Fazal Chaudhry recommended strict accountability of officials in areas where polio cases are being reported even though there are no access-related issues. He said, all propaganda against anti-polio vaccine is unfounded, and urged parents to get their children vaccinated either by the polio teams or at fixed centres.
Shakil Awan urged the media not to publicize personalities who indulge in false propaganda on health issues. Fauzia Ijaz Khan advised the media to support the cause of polio eradication without demanding money. The comment was enough to ignite the media, and within no time, all journalists dispersed from the venue without announcing a formal boycott, which was very much on the cards.
The press conference was followed by a question-answer session wherein the media wanted to know why Pakistan has failed to obtain riddance from polio when countries that launched the initiative much after we did, are enjoying polio-free status. “Is it not a failure of the programme? Does it have to do with corruption,” they asked.
Responding to the query, Shahnaz said, experts believe it will take at least 20 to 25 years to eradicate polio from the world. She said, Pakistan has lagged behind other countries because of factors like floods, terrorism, large-scale population migration, poor campaign quality, induction of child vaccinators, and non-inclusion of women vaccinators in teams. She urged parents to dial the toll free number (0800-88588) to lodge complaints or to summon a vaccinator.
Referring to poor immunisation coverage in Islamabad, Shahnaz said, the chairman of the Capital Development Authority and the Commissioner of Islamabad shall take serious notice of the situation. She rejected the possibility of political interference in the appointment and payment of salaries to district surveillance and communication officers by WHO and Unicef.