Monday (March 13) marked the beginning of a two-phase polio vaccination campaign to immunize more than 21 million children in Punjab and Sindh where healthcare authorities have requested parents to get their children vaccinated. The vaccination programme is divided into two phases due to prior engagements of the government staff in the census exercise. Under the first phase, more than 17.41 million children under the age of five in 13 districts of Punjab and 16 districts of Sindh and Islamabad will be vaccinated from March 13 to March 17. The second phase will begin during the second week of Ramazan. Under this phase, more than 4.12 million children in 12 districts of Balochistan and 26 districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa will be vaccinated.
Pakistan is one of the two countries in the world where polio is still endemic; Afghanistan is the second one. Since April 2022, Pakistan has reported 20 cases since April 2022. And while Pakistani authorities have been taking a lot of steps to ensure that all children are vaccinated – their door-to-door campaigns have been quite beneficial – they still have a lot to do to tackle the problem of vaccine hesitancy, which is rampant across the country. Conspiracy theories surrounding the vaccination drive often lead to dangerous consequences: many healthcare workers and police officers guarding the teams have been killed in different parts of the country. Most people also refuse to allow vaccination teams to enter their homes. All of this cannot be ignored because in the end, children pay the price of this ignorance. The lethal and highly contagious virus leads to paralysis in children’s bodies, depriving them of a healthy childhood.
A couple of weeks ago, authorities started a unique and creative campaign to raise awareness among people. Trucks plying on Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Afghanistan routes were painted with eye-catching truck art, encouraging people to immunize their children. Lack of scientific knowledge and a rigid belief in conspiracies go a long way in stopping the government from meeting its target, but we have seen that the government can and does have the potential to carry out large-scale vaccination drives. In an attempt to keep the Covid-19 pandemic out of the country, the government launched commendable vaccination drives. It can plan along the same lines to eradicate polio from the country. People also need to step up and coordinate with the government. Schools, colleges and universities should conduct campaigns to tell students about the importance of vaccination. Health centres in every district should organize awareness seminars to encourage people to get their children vaccinated. The fight against polio requires great resolve. It is the efforts of the brave men and women who walk from house to house to administer polio drops despite threats and social stigma that must be saluted. Only large-scale campaigns – with enough security provisions for the teams – can get rid of widespread vaccine hesitancy in Pakistan and make the country finally polio-free.