The polio battle

 
February 20, 2020

Pakistan continues to struggle to eradicate polio from its territory, even as the first nationwide anti-polio drive in over a year was launched on Tuesday. On the same day, a policeman providing...

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Pakistan continues to struggle to eradicate polio from its territory, even as the first nationwide anti-polio drive in over a year was launched on Tuesday. On the same day, a policeman providing security to a vaccinating team was killed in the D I Khan area. It has been decided to continue the campaign despite this setback, but Pakistan will need to think and plan carefully. At the end of last month, when a special drive was organized in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – from where the maximum number of polio cases had been reported in 2019 – two female polio workers were killed in the Swabi area. Pakistan remains one of only two countries in the world still endemic for polio. The other country is Afghanistan.

Till the end of 2018, when 12 cases were reported, it had appeared that Pakistan could be moving towards overcoming a disease that has left thousands crippled over the years. However, the 144 cases reported in 2019, and the 17 already reported in 2020 push back these hopes. One-third of Pakistani children under the age of five are reported to be un-vaccinated effectively against polio either because of refusal by families based on myths about the safety of the vaccine or because the areas where they live are considered unsafe for vaccination teams. Even in a mega city like Karachi where the anti-polio drive began a week ago, vaccinators have reported being met with hostility and even pelted with stones. On Tuesday, the visiting secretary general of the UN emphasized the importance of wiping out polio in Pakistan and delivered drops to three children at a kindergarten in Lahore.

The government, which has been running an anti-polio campaign in the media and also plans to expand it to social media, had conceded last year that there were problems and that new strategies were being devised. With a target of vaccinating over 36 million children across the country in the latest drive, the government will need to examine the problem and assess why so much resistance against the vaccine still exists. Since 2012, at least 101 anti-polio workers and the accompanying security staff have been killed in the line of duty in their efforts to eradicate a disease that refuses to relinquish its grip despite efforts by the media, by social workers, by politicians and by medical experts. This is not an issue Pakistan can take lightly. If the failure this year is as massive as it was in 2019 the country faces new travel restrictions. This will not in any way benefit it or the country’s children. The media of course can play a very big role in helping people overcome whatever negative perceptions they have regarding polio vaccination. We hope that in this Polio versus Pakistan battle, Pakistan comes out the winner.



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